The City and the Rising – A 3D Spatial Humanities Project

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(Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

This spatial humanities project is a recent example of a public history project. It was created for Dublin City Council (DCC) by Noho Ltd and was launched as part of the 1916 Rising Centenary programme of events. It was featured in a recent talk given by John Buckley to MA students as part of the module AFF624. The project is currently hosted at the following website. The first issue encountered when viewing the project was the usability of the website. The need to switch between a 2D map, 3D (where possible) and pop up text boxes creates a confusing visual experience for the viewer if they are using a 13” laptop. Three different devices were utilised for this evaluation; an iPhone 6, an iMac 5K 27” and a MacBook Pro 13”. The resolution differences between these devices raises significant questions about accessibility. The best viewing experience was achieved on the iMac which presented the information in a clear and concise interface, allowing the user to interact and explore the website with ease. The worst viewing experience was on the iPhone 6, this suggests that mobile viewing was never considered during the design stages of the project. On the MacBook Pro 23”, the resolution scaling resulted in a cluttered and crowded screen, resulting in a limited user experience. The limits the potential of this project to desktop or large screen (15”+) laptop users. The project’s navigation tool is a detailed topographical map of Dublin city. Locations of significance during the Easter Rising are highlighted in different colours; red icons indicate texts boxes and blue icons indicate that a 3D visualisation is available. Some of these visualisations are simple 3D buildings superimposed on the 2D topographical map. The locations with 3D interactive representations are; Sackville Street, St. Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle.

City and the Rising Front Page (Copyright, NOHO & Dublin City Council)
City and the Rising Front Page (Copyright, Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)
Four Courts. Text box with picture. (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Four Courts. Text box with picture. (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

The 3D representations generate within the website utilising the WebGL protocol and the process is relatively smooth, although the images are heavily compressed. This is particularly evident on a 5K resolution iMac screen.

Sackville Street - 3D Representation (Copyright. NOHO Ltd. & Dublin City Council)
Sackville Street – 3D Representation (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

In addition to the 3D representations, the project has a separate Oculus Rift element called the Virtual Museum. This is limited to those who use a Windows computer and have access to the relevant VR technology. This further limits access, as non-Windows users are only able to utilise a portion of the project.

Virtual Museum (Copyright. Noho ltd. & Dublin City Council)
Virtual Museum (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

The 3D representations of key buildings and areas of Dublin city are the most emphasised parts of the project. For example, when one hovers a mouse over the Dublin Castle icon, the text reads ‘Rebels attack Dublin Castle Gates’ but the 3D view shows an empty and clean representation of Dublin Castle.

Dublin Castle Gates Attacked by Rebels text box (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Dublin Castle Gates Attacked by Rebels text box (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)
'Dublin Castle Attacked by Rebels' 3D Representation (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Dublin Castle 3D Representation (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

This is a repeated flaw throughout this public humanities project; the inability to represent even in a minimal sense human involvement. The empty world model that is shown is photo-realistic but is removed from the historical reality that is being told. In a way this disconnect is inevitable with this type of project as 3D representations with avatars are harder to create and more expensive. It is important to reiterate that this is a public humanities project paid for with funding from a public institution. Therefore added functionality that is expensive is less likely to occur as budgets of public institutions are highly scrutinised. A quote on the project by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr. Críona Ní Dhálaigh, stated that this project was a form as ‘edutainment’ (TechCentral 2016), this may be the most accurate way of explaining its contradictions. The historical narrative outlined in this project is clear and doesn’t indulge in overt nationalist themes and rhetoric unlike the 1966 commemorations. The images of key persons and destroyed buildings are useful to help visualise the events of the Easter Rising. However the main element of the project, feels like playing the game ‘Myst’. Visually striking and highly detailed but without context, and providing minimal historical augmentation. Unlike the Gettysburg project which sought to engage with the discourse on the Battle of Gettysburg, this project seems to lack a centralised research question or statement. If the 3D elements of this project were supposed to show Dublin prior to the destruction caused by the Easter Rising then this would not be an issue, however the stated aims of the project are a recreation of Dublin during the Easter Rising.

Overall the project is interesting and ambitious in scope and scale. However by de-emphasising the historical record and by presenting a clean, aesthetically pleasing representation, it is unclear what research question is guiding the project. This is unfortunate as the project could be utilised to help bring a new and more interactive experience of the Easter Rising to academics and the general public. However the final product is none of these things, it has potential but it is limited. It fits within the larger issues raised by the recent 1916 commemorations where simplistic and in some cases false assertions about Ireland’s past were disseminated by public institutions.

Work Cited
The City and the Rising. Dublin City Council, www.cityandtherising.com

“The City and the Rising website gives fresh view of 1916.” TechCentral, www.techcentral.ie/the-city-and-the-rising-website-gives-fresh-view-of-1916/

What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg? – A 2D Spatial Humanities Project

What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg?

This project is a good example of an initial academic research idea becoming the basis of a larger spatial humanities project. In 2008, Dr. Anne Knowles, a historical geographer utilised Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) to interrogate pre-existing concepts and narratives surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, a seminal event during the American civil war, in her essay “What could Lee see at Gettysburg?” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (ESRI 2008). Her essay re-examined the physical location of Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg and using ArcGIS created a digital composite map of the battle from a number of historical maps including John Bachelder’s Gettysburg maps created in 1873 (Codex99 2013).

What could Robert E. Lee see?
Map showing Robert E. Lee’s line of sight  (Knowles 2008)

As shown in the topographical map above, Lee was positioned within a clocktower at the Lutheran seminary which provided him with a wide line of sight from which he could direct his army in the field. This map is not interactive but is highly detailed, a simple colour code shows the areas where Lee could see and the areas he could not. However the map is of the opening position of a three day battle. The emphasis upon line of sight is important as during the nineteenth century, physical eyesight was often decisive in the planning and organisation of one’s army for an upcoming battle. In addition to good intelligence filtered to the command level by scouts, spies and acquired local knowledge (maps, local sympathisers etc.)

In 2013, Dr. Anne Knowles and a team of researchers were asked to create a larger project on the Battle of Gettysburg for the Smithsonian Magazine. This project is currently hosted here. This public humanities project was created during the U.S. sesquicentennial of the American civil war which ran from 2009 to 2015. The Smithsonian project should be viewed as the continuation of Dr. Knowles initial research but with a greater emphasis upon the general public. As a result the maps created are more interactive while remaining topographical maps. The entire three days of the battle have been mapped and the positions of the armies and units are colour coded. Each day can be displayed by a slider that allows for a chronological examination of the battle.

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Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
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Day 2 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
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Day 3 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)

The focus upon the general public is indicative of the needs of the hosting institution, in this case the Smithsonian Magazine. The project is, as of the writing of this blog accessible and has not become abandon-ware, however the functionality of the interactive map is problematic. Firstly the map is not full screen and sits within a window, framed by an article describing the project and its significance. Secondly although a user can scroll through the different days of the battle, the ability to focus upon a given area is limited, for example it is not possible to focus upon Cemetery Hill during the three days of the battle exclusively. This would seem to be a major flaw with the project as the ability to narrow the field of view to one area or unit that took part in the battle was the basis of the original concept underpinning this project, namely the field of vision that was available to General Robert E. Lee.

In conclusion this spatial humanities project is a good example of the problems that arise when an academic essay is transformed into the basis of a public humanities project. Although the final product works well and is useful for researchers as well as the general public, the initial essay with its simple research statement presented much more useful information and added greatly to the discuss of the Battle of Gettysburg. The public humanities project does add new details and provides a more distinctive way of viewing the battle but with the level of specificity and the ability to track an individual unit or area of the battle, the level of granular detail provided by Dr. Knowles initial research is lost.

There are a number of websites and articles that contain parts of the project and provide some of the background information like the types of maps utilised. I have listed all the website below that contain relevant information for the project, starting with the initial topographical maps for Dr. Knowles essay and ending with the Smithsonian Magazine. It would have been more appropriate for the Smithsonian Magazine as the host of the public humanities project to have collated this information into a side website that gave a viewer the full context of this project.

Website articles containing relevant information for this project are listed below

‘Gettysburg’ Codex 99

‘A second cutting edge look at Gettysburg’  Smithsonian Magazine

‘General Lee’s Birds Eye View’ Kenneth Wong Cadalyst

Work Cited

‘Gettysburg’ Codex99 www.codex99.com/cartography/gettysburg