Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 2

Digital Heritage Interpretation:
Learning from the Realm of Real-World

Hafizur Rahaman
UNESCO Research Fellow, School of Media Culture and Creative Arts, Curtin University, WA, Australia,
Phone: +61-892663339 (office)

Tan Beng Kiang
Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117566.,
Phone: +65-65161357 (office)

Heritage interpretation is often used to indicate the storylines adapted to help visitors to engage with and understand historical sites or artefacts. However, until now we hardly find any noteworthy scholarly works, charter, and critical discourse on the theory and methodology of interpretation in the field of Digital Heritage. Praxis limited by such theoretical underpinning, and at the same time the unwitting obsession with technology as a way out for better interpretation is leading most of the digital heritage projects to become descriptive and ocular-centric. Although technologies and tools like game-engines, multi-player virtual environments, haptic devices, augmented visualizations and immersive displays are being used to accentuate experience and visual fidelity, nevertheless, many scholars argue that technology alone can only provide partial interpretation. This paper raises the demands for an interpretive method for digital heritage and proposes some guidelines based on interpretation theories and scholarly materials from the real-world heritage domain.

digital heritage, interpretation, real-world, interpretive principles, Tilden, end-user

Figure 01: Key domains of digital heritage

UNESCO’s Charter for “Preservation of Digital Heritage (2003a, p. 1)” defines digital heritage as “unique resources of human knowledge and expression. It embraces cultural, educational, scientific and administrative resources as well as technical, legal, medical and other kinds of information created digitally or converted into digital form from existing analogue resources.” In this way, the field of digital heritage appears broad while digital contents in both 2D (e.g., text, image, motion pictures) and 3D (e.g., VRML models, virtual environment, navigational 3D models, and environments), can be categorized under the rubric of digital heritage. Digital heritage objects can also be viewed regarding the point of creation and classified accordingly into two types i.e. digitally born and digital surrogate. Digitally born or “born digital” are those which only exist in digital format, i.e. electronic journals, Web pages, and on-line databases. Digital surrogate on the other hand, is only a digital replica captured from an original “real-world” object for preservation, representation, or research. Captured images, 3D scanned objects, and digital video of a ritual are examples of digital surrogate objects. According to Addison (2000), the development process of digital heritage owns three major steps: (i) Documentation: everything from site survey to epigraphy, (ii) Representation: from historical reconstruction to visualization, and (iii) Dissemination: from immersive networked worlds to “in-situ” augmented reality.

Disciplines such as archaeology, history, and heritage management have set the role and objectives of interpretation with long practice and research. “Interpretation” has always been considered in these disciplines as an effective learning, communicating, and management tool that increases visitors’ awareness and empathy to the heritage site and artifacts. On the contrary, the definition of interpretation in digital heritage theory and discourse is still wide, and often suffers due to lack of adequate scholarly material, principles, and methods of interpretation (Affleck & Kvan, 2008; Tan & Rahaman, 2009) and critical discourse (Cameron, 2008; López-Menchero Bendicho, Flores Gutiérrez, Vincent, & Grande León, 2017). While there are charters available for “Interpretation and presentation of cultural heritage sites,” nothing similar exists for digital heritage. Motivated by widespread popularity and driven by the risk of losing intricate data, UNESCO (2003b) had earlier adopted the Charter for “Preservation of the Digital Heritage.” However, this only expresses its concerns for the protection of digital resources without making any indication to its presentation or interpretation. There is also The London Charter (Beacham, Niccolucci, & Denard, 2009) and the Principles of Seville (Lopez-Menchero & Grande, 2011). Whereas the former focuses primarily on computer-based virtualization methods and their implication only, the latter is intended to improve the conditions of applicability of the London Charter.

Due to the lack of scholarly support, in most cases, digital heritage projects become obsessed with technology as a deliverer for greater interpretation and turn into descriptive while being disoriented with diverse objectives (Rahaman, Das, & Zahir, 2012). The usage of a game engine to achieve the hermeneutic environment (Champion, 2003), the usage of somatic impulse (Flynn, 2008) or haptic devices (Roussou, 2008) to achieve an embodied interaction, the application of an artificial agent and dynamic contents to get a realistic environment and the usage of augmented stereographic panoramas (Kenderdine, Shaw, Favero, & Brown, 2008), immersive displays (Tan, 2007) and holographic displays with augmented reality application (Pedersen, Gale, Mirza-Babaei, & Reid, 2017) to get more immersion are some examples. Although these efforts may accentuate experience and visual fidelity, they can only provide partial interpretation (Rahaman & Tan, 2010, 2011; Tan & Rahaman, 2009) of heritage unless it is planned under a comprehensive interpretive framework integrated with well-articulated objectives that offer an in-depth understanding of the past.

The primary objective of this paper is to suggest some guidelines for digital heritage interpretation based on learning from real-world heritage interpretation principles and methods. The paper expects these suggested guidelines would benefit further development of charters and interpretive digital content. In terms of methodology, several interpretive principles for real-world heritage interpretation by various heritage scholars are reviewed, and two matrixes are developed to correlate the ambivalence between them. Although these principles are developed solely for the physical realm, some of these are found applicable to the digital heritage and are presented as the outcome of this study.

Figure 02: Tilden’s principles elaborated by other heritage scholars

Figure 03: New principles added by other heritage scholars

(Real-World) Heritage Interpretation: A Review
“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation”
—Freeman Tilden (1977, p. 18).

The term interpretation is often used to indicate the storylines adapted to help visitors to engage with and make an understanding of the place or objects in a real-world heritage site or museum. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2009) defines interpretation as “the particular way in which it is understood or explained.” This definition points to an inherent duality. Understood indicates to self-interpretation or self-learning, or rather to reflexiveness, explained, on the other hand indicates to presentation (or communication factor; similar concept mentioned by Moscardo, 1996, 1999) which is mostly “the act” of the interpreter (or the interactive device). A compilation of heritage interpretation definitions from diverse scholarly sources and heritage institutes by Rahaman and Tan (Rahaman & Tan, 2011) presents that interpretation has traditionally been considered as a method or tool for the presentation of or communication with visitors, aiming to facilitate, (i) Learning (conveying symbolic meaning) (ii) Provocation (promoting attitudinal or behavioral change), and (iii) Satisfaction (enhancing enjoyment of place and visit).

Tilden (1977, p. 9) suggested a set of six principles for an “effective or correctly directed” interpretation practice for real-world heritage sites. Followed by Tilden’s other heritage scholars proposed their own set of principles while questioning the ambivalence pertaining to achieve a more effective interpretation. The first matrix (figure 2) attempts to correlate Tilden’s six principles with other scholars, and the second one (figure 3) accumulates the new additions and relates their inherent commonalities. The first matrix however reveals that many of these suggested principles are actually an elaboration and clarification of Tilden’s original principles. For example, Uzzell (1994) devised a set of fifteen principles for “good interpretive practice,” where ten of these proposed principles actually elaborate or clarify Tilden’s six principles. Uzzel’s principles no. 5 and 8 reflect Tilden’s no. 1, 1 and 13 with no. 2, 14 with no. 3, 3 with no. 4, 11 and 12 with no. 5, and 2 and 6 with no.6 (figure 2). Additionally, Uzzell has encouraged visitor participation, highlighted the importance to serve their needs, and asked to be sympathetic to locals, which are illustrated in the second matrix (figure 3) as new principles, and have been being correlated with other scholars.

From these matrixes, it has become evident that, in general, there exists eleven principles and nevertheless these principles are aimed to accentuate interpretation of real-world heritage sites, and therefore may not be directly applicable to “digital heritage” realm. However, this review sets forth some objectives for designing and planning an interpretive process for digital heritage, and helps to formulate few propositions for better presentation and interpretation as well.

Digital Heritage Interpretation

Setting the Objectives
The definition of interpretation in digital heritage theory and discourse is still in infancy, and so far, no explicit method and objective are apparently present. It is also evident that, in most cases, digital heritage projects are oriented by diverse objectives and descriptive in nature developed through a top-down approach. Therefore, an immaculate need of a comprehensive interpretive framework integrated with well-articulated objectives is evident for experiencing an in-depth understanding of the past from digital heritage project.

The current trends of interpreting digital heritage are mostly linear and authoritative and rarely offer any possibility for the emergence of multiple meaning at the narrative level (Affleck & Kvan, 2008; Rahaman & Tan, 2011). As such, it limits the possibility of interpreting the inherent significance or intrinsic values of cultural heritage from multiple perspectives. Bearing in mind that “past” is a cultural construction, this paper, therefore, suggests that the past in the digital media should also be reconstructed in a pluralistic manner. As virtual reconstruction models are mostly partial (Dave, 2008, p. 49); allowing users with diverse backgrounds with social and ethnic identity to contribute to the narrative level, a simultaneously pluralistic and multiple perspectives of history can be achieved. Thus, a more comprehensive and inclusive scenario, akin to the concept of re-construction by Uzzell (1989) seems achievable. Moreover, accepting these multiple voices and juxtaposing them at the narrative level, it can also be possible to overcome any “linear interpretation” and present shortcomings of “image of practice” (the term coined by Kalay, 2008).

Referring to the matrix (figure 2 and 3), it has become apparent that most scholars emphasized on three primary objectives. First, any interpretation should aim to satisfy the visitors (no. 1, 6, 8, 10). Second, most of the scholars suggested some learning activities for conveying the inherent significance of the site or artefact to the visitors (no. 1, 2, 3, 5, 11). Third, a successful interpretation should also enable the visitors to make their own constructions of the past. That is why the interpretive program should aim to provoke visitors (no. 4, 7, 9) to attain some empathy about the heritage site as well as local people for future preservation, conservation, and restoration. Finally, engaging visitors through dialogue and discussion, various task-based activities, including role-play, are suggested by different scholars.

Concerning the previous review and having the possibility of an enhanced dialogue and interaction in delivering multiplicity in content creation (Witcomb, 2008), this paper presents the following four objectives to be consider for an effective and engaging “digital heritage interpretation”:

1.     Satisfaction: Users need to be made satisfied. The interpretive process should aim to enhance their enjoyment of the place and visit.
2.     Provocation/Empathy: The process should increase the awareness of heritage protection, preservation, or conservation. It should facilitate attitudinal and behavioral change among the end-users about the heritage site, people and culture throughout the process.
3.     Learning: The process should aim to convey the symbolic and cultural meaning to the end-users through some learning activities.
4.     Multiple perspectives of the past: The interpretive process should present the history from possible multiple perspectives; thus, it would provide the opportunity to have a broader and alternative understanding of the past.

Some suggestions:
It is evident that the principles, which are presented in figures 2 & 3, are primarily developed for interpreting real-world history and archaeological remains, and unfortunately, most of them are not directly applicable to digital heritage realm. For example, principles related to physical experiences (touching or orienting) are still incomprehensible in the digital realm. Again, implementation of some principles such as variety in experience or stimulation to know more requires a deeper understanding of interaction design theory and practices. Nevertheless, some principles are still proving to be useful as a source for development of guidelines for digital heritage interpretation. For example:

  • Variety in content with the consumer-led approach: End-users are people with varied interests, modes, and expectations. Therefore, content delivery and design must appreciate their needs and interests. Thus, it needs to follow a consumer-led approach with variety in content and presentation. Information can be sorted and delivered at different levels such as beginner, intermediate and expert. 360-degree panorama, interactive maps, VRML models, images, videos, animations etc. can support a 2D platform to achieve variety in content (such as the project bdheritage,, dated April 29, 2015, developed on web 2.0 platform). For 3D environments, the range may differ according to the means offered by the media/tool to present information (such as 3D stereoscopic projection of the project Place Hampi,, dated April 29, 2015). Moreover, the exploration routes and challenges arising from having different complexities or options to select will satisfy end-users’ preference and can further strengthen the consumer-led approach. Manipulative and interactive contents, therefore, may act as a catalyst here. This way, the end-users will be able to explore the variety in terms of levels or contents and according to their preferred time and needs.
  • Novelty, conflict, and surprise in content presentation: Studies show that for exhibits in a museum that are different from traditional static objects have more “attracting power” and “holding time” on visitors (Moscardo, 1996, 1999). Considering this, presentations, which are novel and inherit the potential to surprise end-users, are likely to induce mindfulness and enhance users’ level of understanding and promote learning. The introduction of new digital media/tool, such as haptic devices for simulating the sense of touch (such as CREATE project) or re-use of old media for creating a new experience (such as “Hole in the Earth” in Bullivant, 2007), are examples of such attempts.
  • Setting cognitive dissonance by challenges to explore: Repetitive or conventional presentation or environment leads the end-users to a situation of mindlessness. On the other hand, mindfulness occurs in a novel and unfamiliar situation where individuals require considerable effort or cost to take control of the activity (Langer, 1989). In a situation where a breakdown occurs, the users have to shift their attention consciously to handle the situation, thus correcting or improving the involvement (Riva, 2004). This helps visitors to learn more and to be empathetic about the heritage site. An effective interpretation process can help mediate the present experience of the end-users with a new complex historic environment, such as The Palenque project (Champion, Bishop, & Dave, 2011). This can be done by involving them in cognitive conflicts and challenging them to explore this environment while allowing them to be in a collaborative discourse and knowledge sharing. Online competition, challenges, points and awards for successful task completion can help enhance exploration and participation. Featured members can be highlighted to stimulate others to engage more (e.g., dated April 29, 2015).
  • Easy orientation and navigation: Visitors’ own choice of exploration is highly recommended for physical heritage interpretation practice to enhance the satisfaction of the visit. 3D maps, guide maps and signs for directions are often used to support visitors’ own choice of exploration at a heritage site. Studies from Orion and Hofstein (1994) and Falk (1991) revealed that people in a new and unfamiliar setting spend a significant portion of their energy in getting oriented, and consequently learn less from the site. Similarly, for digital heritage, the end-user needs easy orientation in the new virtual environment or interface. Long data loading time, complex navigation system and heavily loaded graphical details may hinder their expedition. Some end-users may not even have enough time and interest to visit the whole project. Moreover, it is necessary to help them develop a mental model of the entire site so that they can map their way of exploration. Interactive maps, navigational maps, virtual agents and visual guides can be strategically used considering the media or platform. Additionally, the end-users should be allowed to save the experience, quit any time from the tour or re-start their journey to ensure full freedom of the visit (such options are available in 3D games like Tomb Raider, Crysis, and Call of Duty).
  • Openness to new information: Our knowledge of the past is limited, and end-users are varied people with different expectations. To have an enhanced understanding; the past needs to be presented from multiple perspectives. Moreover, to make every visit unique, new and updated information is to be frequently added (as in Facebook). Instead of considering “interpretation” as a tool, it can be conceived as a “process” that allows the narrative to evolve over time through collective participation. Allowing end-users to contribute at the narrative level will therefore not only allow accommodating multiple perspectives of the past, but also help those individuals to get familiarize with the context and to have a sense of ownership. This will also enrich the collective content as well as inter-subjective understanding (i.e. learning).
  • Affordances and connection to the visitors’ experience: Interpretation as a process should relate the presented information with the personality or experience of the visitor; otherwise, the experience would be sterile. Tilden (1977, p. 13) suggested a personal connection with the visitors with examples of presenting information. McManus (1989) Rand, Design, Parks, & Aquariums (1990) and Volkert (1991) also suggested simple conversational style approach for making a connection with the visitors. Analogies and metaphors that link the interpretive content to the everyday experience of the end-users may be used. For example, perceiving the size of a soccer field is easier than a size of an area of 42,599 square feet. For digital heritage, some pre-visit information may be asked and the system may then provide the sorted or filtered information according to the preference or last visit of the end-users, similar to the way that Google presents its search results to users.

UNESCO (2003a) refers to digital heritage as any “born digital” or “digital surrogate” objects that contain unique resources of human knowledge and expression. Heritage interpretation, on the other hand, is considered as an effective learning, communicating, and managing tool that increases visitors’ awareness of, and empathy to, the heritage site or artefacts. In contrast, the definition of digital heritage interpretation is still broad; so far, neither any method nor any objective is evident within the domain of “digital heritage” theory and discourse. This gap has led many digital heritage projects to be motivated towards on demonstrating the technical artistry and power of new technology in representation rather on the methodology on how to interpret the digital content to the end-users. Developed through a top-down approach with linear narratives, such projects assume end-users as a unique entity and limit heritage to the level of a mere consumable product. Although the use of new technologies may sometimes accentuate experience and visual fidelity, however, they only provide partial interpretation, as technology alone cannot comprehensively represent the past from multiple perspectives.

Considering the limitations of assuming a straightforward definition of digital heritage, and highlighting the limited role of cultural institutions in developing guidelines or charter on digital heritage interpretation, this paper first conceptualized the definition of digital heritage. Some traditional interpretation theories and methods from the real-world heritage are reviewed, and subsequently, two matrixes have been developed to compile notable interpretive principles discussed by various heritage scholars, and to correlate them with Tilden’s. This study has revealed the inherent ambivalence between these principles and led us to define four key objectives, such as satisfaction, provocation, learning, and multiple perspectives of the past for digital heritage. Learning form this matrix, this paper eventually proposes a set of suggestions for further development of a comprehensive interpretive method for digital heritage.

Overall, this paper raises a critical query of a much larger issue, instead of providing a comprehensive solution. As such, these recommendations are based only on real-world heritage realms; development of a comprehensive interpretive method for digital heritage would indeed require an in-depth study of allied disciplines such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Learning and Cognition.

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