The 'smart' heritage mediation

 Museum of Stolen Art

There are nearly as many definitions of a smart city as cities that call themselves smart. Besides, every city focuses its own smart initiatives according to its local issues in order to find ways to tackle its own challenges or to promote a given urban aspect. This makes it difficult to pinpoint just one smart model only.

Is this a fashion trend? Perhaps just one more label to make a city more attractive? Or is it a sound tool for urban development and for citizen welfare? Smart Cities promote sustainability and reduction in energy expenditure, and they also foster human, social and economic capital and favour an alternative government model through a set of smart solutions and strategies. Nevertheless, above all, this is a sector in which several innovative projects are being developed, and where large amounts of money are currently invested to build a city for the future. In this highly competitive, innovative context, what is left for heritage?

Heritage in cross-sectional sectors of SC 

The European Union report Mapping Smart Cities in the EU (2014) states that, out of the six main features stated to belong to the smart city ecosystem, countries mostly focus on mobility and environmental issues. Several sectors -such as transport and traffic management, vehicle flow management or optimization of car park places, as well as waste management, for example- are satisfactorily integrated in the Smart City strategy. But approaching heritage in a smart context is challenging, as heritage involves several sectors: tourism, urbanism, architecture, leisure, culture, etc.

Indeed, heritage is related to more than one single place or a clearly-defined category in smart cities, given that several steps are to be taken when addressing the object itself. First come the experts who state its “heritage nature” (modern and industrial heritage is becoming more and more accepted as proper heritage, which implies that more buildings to protect are being “discovered”); then comes heritage protection (preservation, restoration) and its celebration by promoting its value (comprehensive or mediation actions) for a better transmission of its value. In every step, different “audiences” are involved. The last step is aimed at visitors (which may be local citizens or tourists) whereas the first two are more closely related to the experts who manage it.

On the other hand, it is somewhat difficult to regroup heritage strategies within a smart vision. This may be partially explained by the “heritage” concept having several meanings and being in constant evolution: nowadays, it does not only refer to a single monument, but it may involve broader concepts such as the urban historical landscape. It may point to a tangible asset (things in a museum) or a building (in situ) an archaeological site, a monument, a cultural landscape… It may also refere to intangible concepts such as intangible heritage or digital heritage.

Thus, each sort of heritage is different and requires several experts whose action has different impacts. Heritage integration in a smart city may imply the facilitation of physical access to places, as well as efficient flow management and sustainable protection of the area in a comprehensive, urban view of the city. In Italy, many historical sites are included in the smart strategy of a city along with sustainable urban mobility and the proper management of traffic flow, as is the case in Bolonia. Another example of smart heritage protection and management is the Sassi di Matera city -declared a World Heritage Site- that will be the first geology-focused Italian smart city. It has been in a experimental phase until now, and its urban model will include sustainable protection measures for the environment and for the economic sector, as well as energy efficiency to tackle traumatic changes and events.


A symbolic asset as well as an economic drive

Along with the smart city concept based on competition and innovation, the Colombian-French author Carlos Moreno stands up for the “Living City” concept, more clearly focused at the human scale and based on the role played by citizens. In this city view -which is also smart- culture and heritage are an essential part of a living, dynamic and healthy city that may take advantage of innovation to foster its development and dissemination. This was the subject of the 2014 contest organized by the ICF (Intelligent Community Forum), a think-tank in New York devoted to the economic and social analysis of communities that use new technologies with innovation purposes: “Community as Canvas: The Power of Culture in the Emergence of the Intelligence Community1”. The subject focused on how a region or a city may create a novel context in terms of the contribution of arts, heritage and general culture for the development of its community.

Indeed, heritage is a fundamental pillar of a society when it comes to community cohesion through its identity (or identities). Apart from being a significant symbolic asset, heritage is crucial in a city because it generates, either in a direct or indirect manner, an important source of work and of economic benefits.

The French author Xavier Greffe (back in 1993) already wrote about heritage economy. Along with the symbolic recognition of heritage and the values associated to it (artistic, historical and community values, to name a few) there is an industry that promotes, supports and manages it. In a 2010 report, the European Union confirmed that heritage is exceptionally important for the tourism industry and generates 335 billion euros per year. The market for heritage conservation -as stated in the same report- is estimated in 5 billion euros per year. It should be noted that even though these data are still available to illustrate the current situation, they were gathered from a 2006 report. Therefore, the EU has launched a large study about the present market situation in order to obtain up-to-date figures. The project “Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe: Towards and European Index for Cultural Heritage” will be published this year. Its conclusions will be based on social, economic, cultural and environmental aspects and their benefits.

The smart concept fosters the debate between culture and economy, apart from bringing in new parameters. On the one hand, not only do the more traditional job positions (archaeologists, restorers, architects, archivists, historians, etc) play a role in heritage management, but new specializations based on technical knowledge (as is required by technological innovations) also appear. On the other hand, heritage may free itself from a nostalgic view and be considered an active agent in building the cities of the future.

For example, the European Council linked heritage to a smart, sustainable view, as is stated in their conclusions on “Cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe” (May 21st, 20143): “cultural heritage plays a specific role in the achievement of strategic goals for Europe 2020 in the promotion of a ‘smart, sustainable and comprehensive growth” as it has social and economic consequences and contributes to environmental sustainability”. In the political strategies of the EU, the relationship between heritage and a smart view is clearly defined in July 2014, in a communication by the European Commission: “Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage for Europe4”. In the text, the transformation of the heritage sector is acknowledged and qualified as “a source of social innovation for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”. Therefore, the symbolic value of heritage is joined by economic and social benefits, which makes it even more important in current policies and in local and national strategies.

For instance, the Italian digital agenda5 -which is included in the outline of the European digital agenda- describes a set of actions that merge adding value to heritage with using Open Data. We could also mention the RICHES European Project (Renewal, Innovation and Change: Heritage and European Society, funded by the 7th framework programme in the EC), focused on the new heritage dynamics in the digital age society. The project addresses two different points of view: one of them focuses on the changes involved in the world digitalization and the way heritage repositions itself, as an economic agent or as a focus point for many stakeholders. The other one wonders how citizens, whether in an individual manner or as a community, may play a co-creative role in terms of heritage.

Such questions are being introduced in universities as food for thought on the area, with a view to finding keys towards action. An example would be the Ph.D. course on “The Future of cultural heritage in Smart cities” held in Brussels and in Ravelo in November 2014. They provide the evidence of a significant change in the practices and frameworks that used to be related to heritage.


Smart Heritage

The recent global crisis (with its consequences regarding housing, economy and the environment) has brought about a change in the ways to proceed towards urban heritage. Virtual or short-lived solutions, as will be talked about later, provide an alternative to the traditional ways to value enhancement and make it possible to broaden access to heritage in a significant manner. As a whole, all the different solutions introduced in the article contribute to a shift of the criteria involved in heritage transmission corresponding to a global trend view towards smart cities.

The concept of “smart cultural heritage” has been analyzed and theorized on mostly by Italian researchers such as Starlight Vattano, from Unitersità degli Studi (Palermo) or Eleonora Lupo and Ece Özdil (Milan Polytechnic University). The aforementioned researchers define “smart heritage” as a relation and connection heritage: among the users of a common digital platform, among the institution and its visitors, among the objects/territory and the visitor and among the real and virtual worlds. In the traditional ways for heritage transmission, experts have the information to be transmitted to visitors. In the smart model, with is opportunities for participation and collaboration, visitors also contribute to content by crowdsourcing (collecting collective content). Besides, free data availability (Open Data) has been a significant change that has facilitated transmission and dissemination of information at a long-distance. Apart from heritage becoming accessible, new ways of experimenting it may widen the knowledge on it and reach more people through gamification (application of techniques used in games) to name just one example.


New ways of experimenting it may widen the knowledge on it and reach more people through gamification 


On the one hand, heritage plays a fundamental role in the characteristic cross-connectivity of smart cities, whether on a large scale (in the framework of urban management) or at a user-mediated, smaller scale. Technology makes it possible to symbolically link heritage with the world in the past in many different ways, such as virtual reality or augmented reality that may be accessed through several layers for leisure, educational or informational purposes. On the other hand, the role the visitor plays becomes more cooperative, and even shifts towards a “user role” at the center of the heritage experience.

In order to be smart, technology innovation must help improve citizen’s quality of life. In this case, the relationship between citizens and their past, along with the understanding of the remnants they left, must be sharpened in order to provide a better understanding of the present world. When feeling the past in their hands, citizens feel more engaged to their current environment and play an active civic role. On a large scale, heritage dissemination in the digital age and the creation of a virtual heritage world by connecting and providing information to citizens increase a city’s resilience along with its identity and culture.

As shown in the image, mediation experiences may be divided in four categories when time and space axes are considered. Within these categories, experiences may be individual or collective. Like smart cities -that wish to connect citizens by means of digital platforms but at the same time work to optimize tailor-made services- heritage mediation moves along the same paradox. While technologies such as iBeacons (see below) may offer a custom-made museum visit, collaborative platforms such as Europeana evolve because of a collective contribution.



App “Pivot The World"



1. A “HERE/NOW” mediation

One of the heritage connection types available is the one that links us to supplementary information on the heritage asset right where the asset is. Cell phone applications in museums, which may be used outdoors, help prepare the visit and connect the institution and the visitor. Such applications may be used in situ as well. These are mostly based on audio guides or information panels, which means they are involved in one-way communication: visitors play a passive role. The app by the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a benchmark in terms of comprehensive, diverse content.

Obtaining supplementary information in a virtual manner is also possible outdoors. We have been surrounded by QR codes (Quick Response Codes) and NFC codes (Near Field Communications) for nearly 15 years, either to replace museums panels or to offer supplementary information on heritage sites in open spaces. Content may take several forms and insert objects in a narrative story, such as the “Talking Statues” project in London and Manchester, where speeches by British historical figures may be accessed using QR codes. The “Track Toronto” project in Canada is another example of the aforementioned: its QR codes relate several panels with songs inspired by public places and the zone where they are located. But such codes already made way for solutions that do not require scanning and that do not leave such a “scar” in urban landscape.

Nowadays, in the smart context, the in situ bridge between a physical reality and its corresponding virtual world is based on the availability of data which are obtained from experts and later on customized to the visitor in a more immersive, interactive and adaptive manner. Museums keep increasing their strategies to replace the traditional guide in a novel manner, for example by means of wearable technology. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, by Young, was the first to take advantage of the Google Glass technology for the visit experience in the Keith Haring exhibition (8 nov.2014–16 feb. 2015), providing supplementary multimedia information with visual files, music and statements on the objects. The museum recently reached a collaboration agreement (by the end of the year 2014) with the mobile app Guidekick, which makes it possible for the visitor to become his/her “own guide” in the discovery of historical sites in San Francisco (including Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park and its components…) thanks to 3D interactive maps, music, environmental sounds and a explanatory description.

The “tailor-made visit” experience may also be led by iBeacons, which are currently used indoors to facilitate accessibility, provide information or be used as an interactive game in the heritage scenario. They are based on Bluetooth technology and were introduced by Apple in 2013; they use micro-location to find a connected smartphone (with a previously downloaded app specific for the place visited) to which the beacon will send a signal. When it comes to museus, the signal would be some content related to the artwork, whereby it will provide an interactive experience. Some museums are currently testing this technology, such as Rubens’ House in Antwerp, the Groninger museum in The Netherlands, the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris, the National Slate Museum in North Wales and, more recently, the Picasso museum in Paris and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Storytelling is not a new way to interact with heritage, but it may be enhanced through technologies using the broad range of platforms available. Thus, new pathways for interpretation are opened. For instance, the CHESS European Project (Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-personal interactions and Storytelling) merges the idea of a custom-made experience, adaptability and interactivity with augmented reality (they are described as “edutainment”, somewhere between education and entertainment). The project is based on visitor’s profiles created using data from surveys, opinions, etc. The script, created by experts, is adapted to visitor experience (how much time is devoted to each artwork, etc) and it points the visitor towards the objects considered most relevant to his/her preferences or his/her previous answers.

But storytelling may be adapted to several media, and each of them plays its part to provide the audience with more than one point of view on a given subject in a fun, leisure-oriented manner. This is called “transmedia” storytelling and comes from cinema, from TV series, from games and from documentaries. Right now, museums are currently making use of this technique in order to increase the ways available to disseminate their content in a more immersive and interactive manner. They did so in the “Les Bisons” exhibition in the Quai Branly museum (April 2014), in which projections on Paris buildings were used to liven up a game related to the exhibition subject.

As opposed to the diversification of an artwork outside its own place (in several manners) a museum in the Philippines, Art in Island, offers their visitors a chance to live artworks from inside. In a playful manner, the museum offers 3D artworks their visitors may interact with. Nevertheless, we should questions ourselves (and give the matter some thought) as to the existence of heritage in such a context, where play, nearly cartoon-like replicas and leisure are the main goals pursued by the museum.

3D may also serve other purposes, such as making room for the handling of very similar replicas obtained by 3D printing: this is something the Museum Lab in the Louvre already uses. The alternative experimentation with artworks may prove itself useful for blind people, for example. Such replicas are also obtained by the Smithsonian Institution for conservation, research and training purposes, as the scanning precision enables data collection and analysis in a way that had never been possible until now. The Episcopal Museum in Vic (Catalonia) uses this technology to create replicas while keeping the original artwork from harm so that it may be restored or stored for protection. A method that permits differentiation between replicas and original artworks is always used, as this is essential in the code of ethics in restoration and museology. Printing of 3D models is also helping the building of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona move faster (it is expected to finish in 2026). Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum in London use this technology as an alternative to museum shops, and anybody who has access to the technology may buy a virtual 3D model of the artworks to download and reproduce at home.

Printing of 3D models is helping the building of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona move faster 

2. A “HERE/BEFORE” mediation

Technology in a smart context may also strengthen the relationships between a place in situ and the past in the same place. This could take place in a museum, where augmented reality makes it possible to “X-ray” artworks by great masters and travel back through the “time layers” in the creation process of the artwork, such as in the “Second Canvas” project in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Augmented reality may also fill out empty pictures in a museum devoted to the exhibition of missing artworks, as does the Museum of Stolen Art in Den Bosch (The Netherlands), a temporary museum created by two young artists who used an app to share with the audience ten well-known works of art that had disappeared. 

Outdoors, mobile technology makes it possible to visualize the changes in historical urban landscape in a comparative time travel using augmented reality. Some pilot projects are already available due to the new demand of visual heritage experiences in a new market that combines innovation, tourism and heritage. For instance, in the framework of the European project “I AM” (International Augmented Med) it was possible to rebuild inexistent buildings in the Ruïnes d’Empúries (Empuries Ruins) using a table. The 3D model used geolocation to be adapted to the existing site and provided an impression of realistic finishing touches in an immersive manner. In a similar manner, “Virtuelle Avignon 3D”, which was awarded the French Prize «Heritage and innovation» in February 2015 provides an overlap of the current Avignon bridge with reconstituted images from 1350 and 1675.

Apart from ruined built heritage, destruction-threatened heritage may benefit from an app, as is the case of the “Pivot the world” project, which will be based at first on the historical heritage of Palestine and Israel. The “Streetmuseum” projects works the same way in the streets of London: it overlaps images obtained from files in the London Museum to the current urban landscape. Several examples are available, but technology to be used outdoors still requires some adjustments, mostly due to sun reflecting on the display or the lack of internet connection, which are barriers to such experiences.

Besides augmented-reality mobile technology to link a site to its past, videomapping, or 3D architectural projection, is a means towards heritage mediation, targeted to performance and group experience. Some examples include the mapping of the Sagrada Família by the Moment Factory company from Quebec -as a sensory experience on the inspiration source of its architect, Gaudí- or a restoration of the Romanesque fresco of the Pantocrator in the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, in Catalonia, mappings on historical sites or buildings are halfway between media art, performance and a device for heritage mediation. The thing is that they bring a group of people closer together by having them share and live the optical illusion experience in the same place, thus fostering the exchange of opinions. The year 2015 -which was declared International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies by the United Nations- will witness more events of this kind.

The frontier between performance and wonder is also a focus point when it comes to multisensorial immersion environments, such as in the exhibition “Van Gogh Alive”. Using Sensory 4 technology, a sensorial, audiovisual, immersive simulation technology with sustained audiovisual inputs, the visitors gets carried away from his/her world into the exhibition, whereby obtaining an enrichened experience in terms of images and sounds.


3. A “THERE/BEFORE” mediation

In order to feel the past, immersion enables the visitor to forget about his/her current reality and imagine (almost live) a given period in the past. The immersion does not need to be in situ as in the above example; it may be experimented from home, such as the “The Gallery of Lost Art” exhibition by the Tate Gallery. This on-line, immersive exhibition told the stories of works of art that had disappeared or were destroyed, stolen, rejected… and could not be seen. From one’s own living room, anybody could be a visitor and see artworks that no longer exist and that were given a “second life” during the exhibition.
3D historical sites may be visited from everywhere in a virtual manner; this is the case of Barcino, the roman city where the city of Barcelona is settled. Created by the Archaeological Service in the city, the app makes it possible to visit streets the way they were supposed to be 2000 years ago. Thus, technology enables us to increase our knowledge on art and heritage through its use. The experience provides a different point of view than that obtained when looking them up in a book (for example) by updating the works and sites visited. It intends to move closer and closer to the experience of meeting the original by means of 3D and the illusion of reality.

Such an illusion becomes even more intense when virtual reality comes into play. This has become increasingly popular since the Oculus Rift glasses were sold to to the Facebook company. They came up from the video game world, where they are used to create a group experience in a game. They make it possible to get back, in a different manner, artworks that disappeared. In the virtual Museum of Stolen Art -not the same as the previously mentioned museum in The Netherlands- the undergraduate student Ziv Scheneider brought together, with the aid of the FBI, a set of famous works of art that were stolen by the nazis during World War II. The virtual environment, which may be visited using Oculus Rift from anywhere, provides visual access to artworks, as well as supplementary information.


4. A “THERE/NOW” mediation

Chess ProjectVirtual visits are a way to connect people to a far-away land, a shut-down space or even a non-existing site. Clearly enough, this considerably broadens heritage accessibility, apart from bringing forward new ways for interpretation and comprehension. Using the internet, 3D places may be visited which would otherwise provide a limited in situ experience due to a massive influx of tourists, such as in the Sistine Chapel. Detractors of this kind of substitution state that the real heritage experience is only obtained by a direct encounter with the original artwork, a train of thought that was already present since Walter Benjamin published his theory on the “aura loss” by an artwork in the age of technical reproducibility.

Oculus Rift are also a tool to visit, in a virtual manner, existing places that are far away from the visitor; the visitor may feel he/she is actually in the place he/she is visiting. For instance, during the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona in early March, the Sagrada Família could be visited from a hotel terrace by using the aforementioned glasses. In the summer, it will be possible to visit Strasbourgh Cathedral using Oculus Rift as well. Once again in the tourist sector, the Neon museum in L.A. may be visited using the virtual reality helmet from a Thomas Cook Group travel agency.

Robots are also used in museums for visits outside opening hours, such as in the Tate gallery project “Afterdark”. Using Norio, the robot in the Oiron castle in France, a visitor with reduced mobility may visit the premises by handling the robot at a distance, and he/she may even interact with the people present in the castle rooms.

Long-distance mediation for currently existing heritage may be seen in the shared collections on the web platform. Google had already started in 2010 with its “Art Project”, and high-definition images of artworks from museums all over the world (which now include more than 500 institutions, 60 of which use Streetview technology in their halls) were made available to everybody on the web. The open collection has recently been extended to Street Art in cities such as Montreal. The connection of digital heritage on the internet is entering a more suitable approach to the smart city view as collections grow and change due to crowdsourcing.

The Europeana project, launched in 2008 and co-funded by the European Union, is a multimedia digital library that makes a meta-data set -containing more than 30 millions of audiovisual documents- available to readers. Documents are obtained from national libraries and from European cultural institutions, they are free of charge and provide a licence granting permission for free exploitation. Since 2011, Rijksmuseum has been collaborating as a benchmark case study; it opened its collection (made up of more than 150.000 images) to the on-line public domain, with no restrictions. They may be seen, downloaded, copied and modified for any use, as for example app creation through the Europeana Lab, where two APIs (Application Programming Interface) are offered.

Museums are gradually opening their doors to public dissemination of their collections. This is the case of the GLAM project by Wikimedia Common, a collaborative media library which includes nearly 25 million free-to-use documents. Several museums participate in the project, including the MoMA, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fundació Joan Miró and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. In another Wiki project, around 15 museums opened their doors for image hunting for Wikipedia loves art in 2009-2010, a project that was moved outdoors in Wiki loves public art or in Wiki loves monuments. By means of a picture contest, cooperation from anybody who may contribute to the media library fund is requested.

In a similar manner, many museums allow (and even promote!) taking pictures. Pictures taken by visitors are later on included in a participative digitalization, as is done by the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which later on publishes them on their blog, Instagram, TripAdvisor and Twitter and Flickr accounts. Thus, apart from the connections between visitors and the institution, social networks become a linking hub between visitors and contribute to the dissemination and representation of heritage by an exchange of data between internet users. The relevance of social networks in heritage mediation has been understood and revived by museums, that take part in the #MuseumWeek (23-29 of March), a virtual meeting between 800 museum institutions (from 40 different countries) with their audiences in order to exchange ideas, exhibit collections or strengthen their cooperative networks.


Connection, engagement, experience

Access to heritage, whether in a physical or a symbolic manner, becomes a fundamental point for the participation in the “intelligence” of a city. Digital heritage mediation is a part of the smart strategies that include citizens as a part of the city by means of mobile technologies and interactivity. Citizens become information consumers through Open Data, for example, and they become content producers as well when using cooperative platforms and social networks. Mediation may have scientific, educational, training-oriented, leisure or tourist purposes, and it keeps focusing more and more in visitor/user experience.


Citizens become content producers when using cooperative platforms and social networks


In this context, heritage is not forgotten in “nostalgia for the past”, because it is given the opportunity to make a city more dynamic and take place in “Fab Labs” projects, for instance. The previously described new technologies (the description was intended to be an overview rather than a full description) may correspond to the smart view of a city: a sustainable, connected environment where citizens play an active role and that fosters human, social and economic capital (and cultural, as well).

Smart heritage connects a physical reality to a virtual reality, but it offers a broad range of possibilities to access its representations. Through several experience layers (leisure-oriented, educational, informational, etc.) heritage increases and it becomes more complex and disseminated, which takes it to a broader audience and makes it easier for citizens to feel it as something of their own. Not so focused on tourism, it contributes to educate smart citizens who are engaged and involved in several aspects of their society. In this case, heritage, being as it is the root of the identity/identities of a society (new or old) formed by ancestors or by newcomers, makes up its essential pillar. Therefore, in order to optimize global strategies towards a smart city view, an in-depth reflection is required on the role to be played by culture and heritage as one of its fundamental pillars.


Author’s Note: The author would like to thank Pilar Conesa and Lluís Giménez Mateu for discussion on the subject, a matter that is not usually dealth with in the smart city sector.


By Alexandra Georgescu Paquin 

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