HomeResearch and ImpactSmart SocietiesInterview: Cultural heritage becomes virtual, inclusive and interactive

Cultural heritage becomes virtual, inclusive and interactive

The world is undergoing a digital transformation and so is cultural heritage. Within the 'Interactive Inclusive Heritage' project line, research is being done into how new technologies can add value to traditional museums and cultural heritage sites. It also looks at how they can reach a larger audience and how visitors can interact with the content. The focus of the research is now on the development of a virtual museum exhibition based on ‘HIER. Zwart in Rembrandts Tijd’. This exhibition was developed and displayed in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam, and provides insight into old and new paintings related to people of colour in the Netherlands.

The research is part of the Smart Societies Coalition and brings together experts in different fields. The research is led by Jaco van Ossenbruggen and Claudia Libbi on behalf of VU Amsterdam and by Carolien Rieffe, Shenghui Wang and Dirk Heylen on behalf of the UT.

Shaping our values
Interactive Inclusive Heritage is the proverbial pot of gold as a place for research and development of new technologies and how they can affect society. ‘Cultural heritage is an indispensable part of society and plays an important role in shaping our values and the way we interact with the world. We must carefully consider how modern technologies can bring about positive change. For example, by giving more diverse people equal access to cultural knowledge.’

“Cultural heritage plays an important role in shaping our values and the way we interact with the world.”

Translating to the virtual world
When you visit an exhibition, virtual or real, you might not immediately think of the ideas the curators had beforehand or the messages they want to give. ‘When we started working with museum curators, a lot of our communication was about how the exhibitions should tell a story. And it was about how we could translate their ideas into the virtual world and into a Virtual Reality (VR) experience.

Cultural prejudices   
Taking advantage of VR, however, meant more than just ‘making it immersive’. ‘We began to investigate how visitors could best move through the virtual space, and whether we could follow their eye movements in the process.’ This turned out to be interesting for two different lines of research. In collaboration with psychologists of Utrecht University, the virtual museum became a test environment to study the cultural prejudices of young people concerning diversity and cultural minorities. How could a visit to the exhibition change these?

A smart museum guide
There was also interest from computer scientists who research conversational agents such as chatbots. They are particularly interested in what eye movements say about the curiosity of visitors. ‘We are currently working on integrating a smart, virtual museum guide that could access the enormous amount of information stored in museum databases. He can guide visitors through the exhibition, answer their questions and make recommendations about other art that they might find interesting.'

“If we can interest children in art and history through interactive exhibits, we can contribute to the education of a generation.”

Contributing to education
‘If we better understand how to interest children in art and history through interactive exhibitions, we can contribute to the education of a generation. And if we can collect the right data to measure the real impact of an exhibition, we can make better exhibitions in the future. The question of whether and how we should tell different stories to different visitors is also interesting. For this, we need to investigate the ethics of personalised, intelligent, virtual agents'. 

We would like to further expand our research and collaborations and are always looking for students, researchers and external collaborators with an interest in this topic. Please contact our coalition for more information.