Virtual Interiors as Interfaces for Big Historical Data Research
The Semantic Web needs interfaces for critical, reliable analyses of Big Data for research in humanities, cultural heritage, and creative industries. Utilizing data on the production and consumption of cultural goods, geodata, maps, and building plans from the Golden Age, the project 'Virtual Interiors' unlocks the research potential of large historical data in a geospatial context. The project is funded by NWO Smart Culture – Big Data/Digital Humanities.
In early 2023, we spoke with project leader Charles van den Heuvel and postdoc researcher Chiara Piccoli. In addition to leading the Knowledge and Art Practices department at the Huygens Institute, Charles was a professor of Digital Methods in Historical Disciplines at the UvA. Charles has since retired. Chiara, a virtual archaeologist, was responsible for the research and development of virtual 3D reconstructions of a number of Amsterdam houses from the 17th century.
Amsterdam as a cultural and creative hotspot in the 17th century
Virtual Interiors largely stems from the linked-data project 'Golden Agents' on the creative industry of the Golden Age. "In this project, we needed user interfaces that provided insight into uncertainties in data. In the CREATE group at the UvA, experiments were already underway in creating virtual reconstructions of Amsterdam theatres to visualize what you don't know. This led to a joint application and ultimately collaboration in Virtual Interiors."
The Amsterdam case study Virtual Interiors focuses on implementing new methods by enhancing GIS with applications of 'deep mapping' and historical reconstructions in virtual 3D/4D spaces with multiple perspectives and visual representations of these uncertainties.
Three research projects in one
The overarching questions and goals are developed into three interconnected research projects:
Weixuan focused on contextualizing the lives of artists in Amsterdam in the Golden Age through multilayered deep mapping to understand the relationship between urban fabric and the location choices of artists in the city. She has defender her dissertation on September 12, 2023.
Chiara investigated how individuals in the Dutch Golden Age created, used, displayed, and experienced cultural goods in their homes by developing virtual reconstructions of selected domestic interiors. These 3D models serve as data integration and hypothesis-testing platforms to spatially connect, manage, and explore the rich and heterogeneous historical data sources of this period.
Hugo's work for this research involved designing, creating, and evaluating analytical interfaces for a 3D research environment, in a co-design setting with Chiara Piccoli and during embedded research with project partners Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision and Brill Publishing.
Other contributors to Virtual Interiors included Bart Reuvekamp and Saan Rashid. Bart was responsible for searching a wide range of archival data, and Saan worked as a software engineer for 3D software applications.
The project partners
At the Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision, Hugo previously collaborated with project members and historical experts to create an interactive experience for accessing historical 3D radios, combining contextual information such as designs, notes in notebooks, and photos from the institute's archive.
At Brill Publishing, Hugo collaborated with publishing and programming experts to create various building blocks, including enhanced historical maps, and also restored previous 3D models of scientific instruments from the Dynamic Drawings project.
Together with Het Nieuwe Instituut, an expert meeting and a public event were organized during the international conference ‘Disclosing Futures – Rethinking Heritage’.
Examining Amsterdam interiors in detail
Chiara investigated, among other things, the residence of painter Gillis van Coninxloo at Oude Turfmarkt and the home of affluent Pieter de Graeff and Jacoba Bicker at Herengracht 573.
Charles: "Creating virtual reconstructions is quite challenging; you deal with uncertainties in data and uncertainties in space itself. Ultimately, in Amsterdam, you have very few examples to make accurate reconstructions. You cannot create a reconstruction for all of Amsterdam in the same way. That's why we developed a method that takes into account differences in the degree of uncertainties."
We delve deeper into Chiara's research with Charles and Chiara. The sources Chiara relied on include notarial deeds, documents such as diaries and letters, and architectural information from the construction history of the homes.
Chiara explains, "Pieter kept a diary for 40 years. This diary provided us with a wealth of details about the construction phases of the house, the agreements he made with his neighbours and the craftsmen and painters to whom he gave commissions, and the types of materials used. There was also an extensive inventory list available with an overview of more than 1000 objects from the house. Very valuable for our reconstruction."
Want to take a look inside the house? View the prototype of the reception hall of Pieter de Graeff & Jacoba Bicker's 17th-century home here.
Dealing with uncertainties
Chiara is now a research fellow at the 4D Research Lab and is currently working within the team on a reconstruction of the Oudemanshuispoort, partially used by the Faculty of Humanities and support services of the UvA. Here, too, there are many uncertainties surrounding aspects of the reconstruction.
This type of research goes beyond creating a historical reconstruction. "Architects and other stakeholders can use her virtual reconstruction and the uncovered uncertainties to make decisions for the actual reconstruction," says Charles.
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