Today, cultural heritage sites, museums and other places of historical or societal value can often be visited on the Internet. Panoramic images and virtual tours allow the user to access distant sites from home via handheld devices as well as conventional desktop devices. In this way, these applications strongly reduce the threshold for getting acquainted with various cultures, their respective artefacts and unique heritage.
But can this popular and usually touristic way of presentation be used to introduce valid scientific information to a broad public? This question has been posed at the Academy of Sciences and Literature | Mainz regarding its project "Die Deutschen Inschriften".
The long term research project “Die Deutschen Inschriften” is a joint undertaking of six German Academies of Sciences and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The research focuses on collecting, editing and interpreting medieval and early modern Latin and German inscriptions. They often occur in conjunction with figurative elements or spatial as well as architectural features. The inscriptions themselves are mostly in medieval Latin or in historical or regional varieties of the German language. The geographical area of research consists of Germany, Austria and South Tyrol. The inscription records range from approximately 500 AD to 1650 AD (Brandi, 1937; Kloos, 1973; Nikitsch, 2008). The project’s scholars carry out their research within a wide scope of interests ranging from art history, philology and linguistics to the history of ideas. The research results are published in 90 volumes. More than 43 of these volumes, including over 17.000 records, are currently accessible through the online database “Deutsche Inschriften Online” (German Inscriptions Online, www.inschriften.net).
Observing an item within a cultural heritage site in isolation frequently limits the understanding of it. This is due to its removal from the big picture of the entire ensemble in its historical, cultural and spatial context.
Two different approaches of representing historical sources in their spatial context are being explored by the projects “Inschriften im Bezugssystem des Raumes” (Inscriptions in their Spatial Context, IBR) and the virtual tours through St. Stephan in Mainz and St. Michael in Hildesheim. Project IBR utilised methods of laser scanning and semantic web technologies, in this regard aiming at a more specialised target audience. The virtual tours of St. Stephan and St. Michael on the other hand were developed as a means to visualise the spatial cultural sphere for an audience with a lower degree of specialized knowledge. In doing so the applications were generally aiming at a broader audience (Lange/Unold 2015; www.spatialhumanities.de/ibr/startseite.html; www.inschriften.net/hildesheim/ rundgang.html)
The virtual tour’s objective was to arrange the scientific edition’s epigraphical items in their spatial context and to put the scientific sources on display to a diverse audience in an easy accessible and comprehensible manner. In Hildesheim, the interrelation between the church and bishop at the time of construction, Bernward of Hildesheim, is shown and emphasised through the inscriptions and their placement. (Kruse, 2012). So, the visualisation of this connection and the importance of inscriptions as biographical evidence as well as general historic sources are a further aim.
Several software applications for creating virtual tours already exist that enable everyone to build virtual tours. The software offers the modelling of the views, their arrangement within a tour, the navigation, interactive elements as well as the display on a map. Images, short text and links can be added to describe selected objects. The lack of possibilities to import and embed detailed textual information and to load them from external repositories, limits the benefits in a scientific context. Thus, a software for generic virtual tours was developed to integrate and provide a generic approach for adding content from external repositories (databases, text documents, etc.).
Taking the tour to St. Michael in Hildesheim as an example for the possibilities: the virtual tour enables the user to navigate within the church accessing several fixed viewpoints, to look around and to zoom in on interesting looking spots. Interactive elements indicate the possibility of switching to a different viewpoint, provide information about specific points of interest, most of them inscriptions on stone tablets or tomb slabs or other (art-)historic artefacts. Pop-up windows can contain general information about the inscriptions, a full transcription, as well as a translation of the inscribed texts. Furthermore, images of the inscription, historical sketches, or old photographs as well as audio information can be provided. All this information is displayed in the context of the tour, without exiting the panoramic visualisation. Links to the critical edition of the inscriptions in “Deutsche Inschriften Online” provide easy access to the full scholarly content including scientific apparatus and further bibliographic introductory material.
The software allows for subdividing the information about the epigraphical and pictorial agenda utilized throughout the church into multiple sub-tours. Each tour is therefore enabled to concentrate on a specific topic and by this means to weave a unique narrative of the site and its cultural sphere. Furthermore, various preservation stages and relocations of objects and decorations can be pointed out. The conception of such thematic tours prevents the user from "getting lost" in the virtual environment and from overlooking the content's contextual conclusions and messages. Throughout the tour the viewer receives information in structured order, e.g. the events are sorted chronologically as is the rule in the context of historical information (Rizvic, 2014; Tan/Rahman, 2009).
Creating digital code in the public sector is by necessity an open source process. In contrast to coding in the realm of the competitive private sector, in the cultural realm it is not—and must not be—imperative to shield digital products, project data and know how. Open source software enables people from outside the project to reuse and adapt the outcome as well as to contribute. A generic approach increases the reusability of the code and the application.
The virtual tour to the inscriptions of St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim was born from the idea of combining a popular visual representation with unrestricted access to scientific research and publications.
By means of using a generic approach to the technical implementation, the software is not limited to any specific set of circumstances and does not represent a single-use scenario. Although the application was developed with a specific object in mind, it can easily be adapted to fit other projects within the fields of research, education and visualisation.
Even though the application focuses upon a broad audience, the visualisation can also be of interest to researchers from diverse academic background and disciplines. In this manner scholars are able to receive an impression of a distant site’s or compound’s spatial context. They are as well enabled to present their research in an easy to use, appealing and low-threshold way. The distribution under a free license (GNU GPL V3) enables users to use, adapt and extend the software.