Hyperspaces for History: Multidimensional Mappings and Locating Uncertainties

Activity: Talk or presentationAcademic


Although Berners-Lee’s dream to “create a space in which anything could be linked to anything” (Berners-Lee, 2000, 4) is gradually coming true, the means to make it a social, inspiring and creative space (idem 157-158) are not fully exploited yet. The web is abused as a place for creating “alternative facts”; more often distortions of the truth are less deliberate because they are based on incomplete and ambiguous data. The underlying web of data is too abstract for most members of society to question statements based on these factoids and unintended distortions of truths. SPARQL, for instance is not a user-friendly language to query the Semantic Web and the differences in quality of data make it hard for society to question and nuance statements. This also affects humanities research and history in particular. Representations of Big Data of the Semantic Web, of historical networks or of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are still just too “flat” to exploit them in depth for historical research in the humanities or for the disclosure of cultural heritage. Humanities scholars have challenged the use of digital analytical methods of patterns in Big Data (Drucker 2011, 2013; Fickers 2013 ). Valuable as these studies are for close readings of small data, they do not provide solutions yet for handling Big Data and visualisations hereof. Designers and researchers can collaborate in creating more accessible and reliable environments for the analysis of Big Data and meaningful interpretations hereof. This is the background of a recent application for funding, submitted by a consortium of the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, the University of Amsterdam (Mediastudies-Create), the department Monuments and Heritage of the City of Amsterdam, The Netherlands Institute of Sound&Vision and Brill Publishers, with the title Virtual Interiors as Interfaces for Big Historical Data Research. This proposal builds upon the current NWO-large infrastructure project Golden Agents: Creative Industries and the Making of the Dutch Golden Age that aims at analysing interactions between various branches of the creative industries and between producers and consumers using a combination of semantic-web and multi-agent technologies and circa 2 million scans of notary acts, such as probate inventories, testaments etc. of the City Archives of Amsterdam. The combination of relevant collections of the Rijksmuseum, the KB National Library of the Netherlands, the RKD Netherlands Institute for Art History, in linked open data is expected to facilitate new research on developments in the arts and creative industries. (https://www.goldenagents.org). Despite its expected importance in the detection of relevant patterns between production, consumption and innovation in the creative industries of the Dutch Golden Age, limitations are foreseen from the outset. First of all, the Golden Agent infrastructure will be built by ICT developers with support of domain-experts, but the funding rules for the project do not allow for research. Secondly, the Big Data of this project is very incomplete, ambiguous and will result in many uncertainties. In this paper we want to discuss how The Virtual Interiors project not only could be used for testing and validating intermediate deliverables of the Golden Agents infrastructure by research, but also for the development of critical spatial visualisations that can express uncertainties and multiple perspectives for applications beyond this project. With the creation of human-friendly virtual research environments on top of the SPARQL endpoints of the Semantic Web, that express uncertainties in data and that allow users to interact, the project not only intends to contribute to a more trustworthy and participatory exploitation of the Semantic Web, but also to contribute to the development of hermeneutic methods. These methods will be developed first of all by applying and combining concepts in the spatial humanities of “deep” and “thick maps”; secondly by creating a virtual 3D/4D space that allows for multiple perspective views. Deep maps that result from the convergence of the multi-layered model of GIS systems with multimedia are “meant to be visual and experiential, immersing users in a virtual world in which uncertainty, ambiguity, and contingency are ever-present” and able to work with such “imprecision and fluidity as the nature of humanities questions and evidence demands”. (Bodenhamer, 28). “Thick maps” use multimedia to create “hyperspaces” as “contextual realities in which human beings act and create. ” (Presner, Shepard & Kawano, 2014:17-18). Although the concepts of deep and thick maps are not completely new, publications of their applications in practice have been limited so far to only a few experiments. Moreover, despite their notions of inclusion of ambiguities and uncertainties these publications do not discuss their nature or the locations where they can be expected i.e. in the data or in the interfaces of these multilayered 2D/3D and 4D representations. In this paper we discuss four strategies to handle uncertainties: - The development of a typology of uncertainties in multidimensional virtual reconstructions - Locating of various sorts of uncertainties - Contextualising uncertainties (by links to additional historical sources and user -annotations) - Visualising uncertainties. However, the question how we tell, edit and represent “stories” in virtual reconstructions with incomplete/inconsistent data has relevance far beyond the historic case of Amsterdam. Contextualising these virtual historic reconstructions with sustainable annotations provides input for the creation of more generic, multidimensional “hyperspaces” that serve as interactive interfaces for research in the digital humanities, cultural heritage and beyond.
Period27 Nov 2017
Event titleDHNord 2017: Deconstructing Digital History
Event typeConference
LocationLille, France
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • digital history
  • digital hermeneutics
  • big data
  • virtual reality
  • user interfaces
  • spatial analysis