Digital and virtual museums in the North West of Ireland

Joan Condell, senior lecturer in the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems in the Department of Computing and Engineering at Ulster University (Magee) discusses the long-term sustainability of cultural heritage and how technology is driving marketing, with an insight into how the North West is inputting to wider European efforts to sustain and preserve heritage.

Sustainability of museums

Sustainability generally concerns futures needs, that is meeting the needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability, however, is not just the consideration of environmental needs but also tourism, economical, community and educational needs.

Museums are under increasing pressure to carefully consider their long-term sustainability. Museums should enhance the quality of life of everyone both today and in the future, passing on to future generation’s collections, information and knowledge contributed by people in the past. In the context of sustainability, museums increasingly need to think within the realm of the quality of service and ‘excellence’ of their own establishment as well as to their local community (Principles for sustainable museums, Museum Association). Sustainability projects need to be developed to assist in the building of relationships ‘virtually’ with new audience groups through digital forms.

Learning and transferring best practice in sustainability

Best practice in the realm of museum and heritage sustainability typically has considered the social role of the contemporary museum in a world affected by climate change. However, best practice in sustainability also needs to source, develop and test community co-production methodologies alongside the use of digital and virtual technologies and tools for tourism and education. Furthermore, environmental policy recommendations need to be considered for slow and sustainable tourism, and the value of local heritage sites for planning.

1943 Berlin Blitz VR – BBC.

Virtual museums without walls can be (and are being) developed and assessed including, specifically, the data gathering and its management from museums. Museums need to explore their social, economic and political role within their (remote and often sparsely populated) regions. They need to embrace their responsibility to raise awareness for the local landscape and its natural and cultural heritage, in order to protect and enable sustainable environmental management. Hence, museums should play a stronger part in offering on-site specific heritage data to communities, authorities and visitors.

Technology and heritage

It is important for museums to recognise the importance of building technology competences within their institutions to facilitate the collection and dissemination of heritage information from/to communities, authorities and end users and visitors. Toolkits can enable sharing of information more widely. Museums can hence build informative, fun applications for tourists that invite them to spend more time at a destination, encouraging slow travel. There is a vast array of technology which can enable new means of dissemination in the form of animations, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Realty (AR); also digital representations of historical objects can be considered for example photogrammetry. Mapping and gamification techniques can be used to engage and assess participation of end-users.

CyArk – Google Arts & Culture.

A recent example has been shown through the BBC’s virtual-reality recreation of a Lancaster bomber raid over Berlin in which viewers will hear the words of a 1940s war reporter on virtual headsets. This virtual experience, which is called 1943: Berlin Blitz, puts viewers in the shoes of war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas on a bombing raid at the height of World War II. Viewers can see the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber high over Berlin, with Vaughan-Thomas’s commentary – based on a genuine broadcast – narrating the experience. Viewers can access the immersive experience using the BBC VR app on tablets and smartphones, which act as a view screen slotted directly onto the gadget.

St Catherines’s Church, Killybegs – Virtual Reality Reconstruction – Fully explorable on HTC Vive & Oculus Rift.

Another recent example is Google’s recent partnership with CyArk to expand CyArk’s mission to 3D laser-scan the world’s historical sites and provide open access to the data. This ‘Open Heritage Project’ aims to preserve historical sites digitally for future generations in case disaster strikes. The Open Heritage Project uses laser-scanning light detection and ranging devices (LIDAR) as well as photo imagery from drones and DLSRs in VR tours via Google’s Daydream platform. The CyArk studio has created 3D models spanning history. ‘High risk’ sites are targeted such as the Ananda Ok Kyaung temple, in Bagan, Myanmar which has remained closed to visitors due to the damage from a 2016 earthquake but visitors can now virtually step inside and discover its famous wall paintings.


North West input to wider European efforts to sustain and preserve heritage

An EU project, Connected Culture and Natural Heritage in a Northern Environment (CINE: Connected Culture and Natural Heritage in a Northern Environment), is a collaborative three-year digital heritage project (2017-2020) between 19 partners from Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. CINE aims to transform people’s experiences of outdoor heritage sites through technology, building on the idea of “museums without walls”. In CINE new digital interfaces such as augmented reality, virtual world technology, alongside easy to use apps bring past to life, allowing visualisation of effects of the changing environment on heritage sites, and helping to imagine future problems and challenges. This project also develops content management toolkits which enable curators, archivists, historians, individuals and communities to make their heritage projects innovative, creating unique on-site and off-site customer experiences in specific locations. Further, this facilitates ‘virtual’ customers experiencing museums without environmental cost. In CINE Ulster University alongside Donegal County Council are the using existing, as well as newly developed, VR and AR technologies to gather and disseminate information accessible to a wider public. In the North West this is facilitating the sharing of knowledge with entrepreneurs and companies within the creative and tourism industries via regional community groups.

Donegal County Museum – Photogrammetry in Action.

North West Killybegs case study

In particular, a case study within CINE involves two regional partners, Ulster University working closely with Donegal County Museum, and the small town of Killybegs in Donegal. This Killybegs case study explores models of community co-production and the value communities place on their heritage – how this can be brought to a wider public though new means of interpreting the past. Specifically, these two partners are creating an on-line teaching resource to train and enable future community groups to record and interpret their own local heritage. This will be done through the use of new technologies in digital documentation (3D data capture, 360 video, metadata) and narrative creation (story-telling), Cultural heritage content created by the community consists of a range of digital products such as on-line 3D models, 360 immersive video, multi-media content (audio, video/imagery). This content has a range of potential uses including research data, cultural tourism and the creative industries sector. Ulster University are also planning to test-drive heritage games in Ireland through such community groups in the North West alongside Donegal Museum.

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