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Introduction

by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel and Hugh Denard

Computer-Generated Images (CGIs) are widely used and accepted in the world of entertainment but the use of the very same visualization techniques in academic research in the Arts and Humanities remains controversial. The techniques and conceptual perspectives on heritage visualization are a subject of an ongoing interdisciplinary debate. By demonstrating scholarly excellence and best technical practice in this area, this volume is concerned with the challenge of providing intellectual transparency and accountability in visualization-based historical research. Addressing a range of cognitive and technological challenges, the authors make a strong case for a wider recognition of three-dimensional visualization as a constructive, intellectual process and valid methodology for historical research and its communication.

Heritage visualization is considered here as a process of representing knowledge about space, time, behaviour, sound and light, and other elements that constitute cultural environments.  What can visualization-based research processes uniquely achieve? Representing ideas and phenomena verbally can achieve heightened analytical power and precision at a conceptual level. Similarly, visual representations of ideas and phenomena can enable synthesis of potentially vast amounts of varied information with graphical precision, and can provide intuitive interfaces that facilitate understanding of spatial, temporal, acoustical and other data. Digital technologies offer flexible analytical tools, both sensory and semantic, for the study and representation of the past, but the evidential utility of such techniques – it is argued here – is only valid if interpretative frameworks and processes are published.

Intellectual transparency of visualization-based research, the pervading theme of this volume, is addressed from different perspectives, reflecting the theory and practice of respective disciplines. The contributors – archaeologists, cultural historians, computer scientists and ICT practitioners – emphasise the importance of reliable tools, in particular documenting the process of interpretation of historical material and hypotheses that arise in the course of research. The discussion of this issue refers to all aspects of the intellectual content of visualization and is centred round the concept of ‘paradata’. The term is borrowed from other disciplines that rely on recording information processes. Paradata document interpretative processes so that degree of reliability of visualization outcomes can be understood. Paradata may be seen as a digital equivalent to scholia, as well as an addition to the traditional critical apparatus for describing the process of reasoning in academic research. The disadvantages of not providing this kind of intellectual transparency in the communication of historical content may result in visual products that only convey a small percentage of the knowledge that they embody; thus making research findings not susceptible to peer review and rendering them closed to further discussion. It is argued, therefore, that paradata should be recorded alongside more tangible outcomes of research, preferably as an integral part of virtual models, and sustained beyond the life-span of the technology that underpins visualization.

Heritage visualization is no longer limited to rendering bricks and mortar, and increasingly benefits from developments in intuitive computing.  While scope for experimentation remains considerable, the need for robust theoretical and methodological frameworks is urgent. Bearing in mind that our knowledge of the past is partial and uncertain, the authors address the following questions:

  • With no fundamental technological difference between visualizing structures that still need to be built and structures that have existed, what are the methodological differences?
  • How can the process of interpretation of material evidence be conveyed, particularly in areas where data are questionable, incomplete or conflicting?
  • How can computer models and other visualization outputs be made open to further investigation, particularly as and when new evidence and enhanced tools become available?
  • What are the limits of visual representation; what tools are available, or need to be developed, to convey information about levels of empirical certainty in hypothetical reconstructions?
  • What is the value, in different contexts, of simplified and inexpensive visualization versus expensive and photo-realistic modelling of heritage?

The volume arises out of the internationally-coordinated attempts to establish core principles and guidelines for computer-based visualization of cultural heritage, known as The London Charter, in which the editors and a number of contributors are centrally involved. A number of papers included here were originally presented at the expert seminar, Making 3D Visual Research Outcomes Transparent, co-sponsored by the AHRC ICT Methods Network; EPOCH; PIN, Prato, Italy and King’s Visualisation Lab, King’s College London and held at the British Academy on 23-25 February 2006.  The papers presented at the British Academy are complemented by texts commissioned for this volume.  The London Charter, has been recognised by the AHRC Methods Network Activities Evaluation Report (March 2008) as ‘probably one of the potentially most far reaching outcomes of any of the Methods Network events’, and which also constitutes a major outcome of the EC EPOCH Network of Excellence. The second draft of the Charter (7 January 2009), which includes feedback from a community-wide consultation, is introduced and its full text published in this volume. Together, the papers provide the context for the London Charter and respond to it, demonstrating the depth of intellectual concerns and wide-ranging application of its principles.

The international contributors to this volume are recognised experts in their fields. They are actively engaged in academic research in the area of heritage studies and have published extensively on various aspects of computer-based visualization. Much of this experience reflects contribution to important visualization projects and international collaboration between subject and technology specialists, academic and heritage organizations, and commercial sectors. They are joined by two representatives of the new generation of researchers, both recent graduates, of MSc in Archaeological Computing and MA in Humanities Computing respectively. Their discussion of the decision-making process involved in computer modelling is indicative of the implementation of new ICT-based pedagogy. Their work is also exemplary of emerging interdisciplinary research practice that combines different subject areas, but is no longer dependant on collaboration and may be carried out by a single researcher. The paper by a curator of a zoological collection serves as a reminder of just how wide-ranging is the notion of cultural heritage; it also illustrates the interdisciplinary sharing of knowledge that is now possible through the application of digital technologies.

Computer-based visualization appeals to a broad interdisciplinary and international audience. This book aims to reach the academic community across the Arts and Humanities domains, and in particular those interested in the study and representation of the past and the use of ICT in research. We hope the volume will be of interest to cultural historians, archaeologists, and other researchers, educators and cultural heritage organizations and anyone interested in 3D visualization technologies, whether actively engaged in their application or casual users. The online appendix enhances the presentation of the visual material using interactive 3D formats that cannot be conveyed adequately in a book.

Similarly to other volumes in the AHRC ICT Methods Network series, this book presents current developments in advanced digital methodologies in the Arts and Humanities, and is solely dedicated to the issue of intellectual transparency of visualization-based research. Select applications of digital visualization have been covered earlier in the series, in the volume The Virtual Representation of the Past, which has also introduced the aims of The London Charter and its debt to previous work. This volume, however, is unique in the breadth of the discussion of intellectual content enabled by visualization.

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