UAntwerp, UGent and the City of Antwerp join forces for a prestigious European project?
Europe sees merit in the prestigious Time Machine project. This initiative aims to use the most innovative technologies to map and open up Europe's rich history and cultural heritage in an unprecedented way. In Belgium, the universities of Antwerp and Ghent and the City of Antwerp are among the parties who are eager to extend their cooperation.
After a thorough selection procedure, the European Commission has selected six major research projects, which are now eligible for funding as so-called ‘large-scale research initiatives’ over the next ten years. The chosen projects will be receiving one million euros to draw up a detailed roadmap.
Time Machine, coordinated by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is one of these six selected proposals, and is the only one in the domain of human sciences. 33 universities, archives and institutions from almost all European countries are joining forces for this large-scale project, with the support of several hundred other bodies. Their intention is to visualise Europe's history and cultural heritage and to make it accessible for all purposes, with the help of the latest technologies.
An entire city in 4D
Several Belgian institutions are supporting the Time Machine project, including the universities of Antwerp and Ghent, and almost all the museums and archives in the city of Antwerp. The Royal Library and the State Archives are also on board. "This is an incredibly ambitious project," says Mike Kestemont , a computational text analyst at UAntwerp and one of the Belgian leaders in the international consortium. "Even the science journal Nature has reported on this, which is highly exceptional for the human sciences. The momentum that this initiative has managed to gain in a short period of time is just incredible."
UAntwerp’s contribution focuses on the unique way in which mapping and language technology will be combined. "We’re going to link all possible historical sources, ranging from old maps and manuscripts to archives and visual material, based on location", explains Ilja Van Damme (Centre for Urban History, UAntwerp).
"This way, we will literally be able to build a city in 4D, where visitors can take a stroll through time, in a sort of Google Street View environment. With this kind of interface, you can pick a building in Antwerp’s city centre and find out who has lived there throughout the centuries, and what the purpose of the building was. And thanks to floor plans and sources providing insight into the building’s interior, you can even enter a virtual reconstruction of the building and see what sort of things people had in the era of Rubens. In these immersive spaces, you can even pick up the digitised heritage and drop it without breaking it."
Big Data of the Past
There’s also a lot of expertise in urban historical research and digitisation projects at the university of Ghent. "Just recently, we finished digitally opening up and georeferencing tens of thousands of medieval records from the Low Countries," says Jeroen Deploige, who works at the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies. "The restoration of the famous Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, has also resulted in new technologies for digital analysis of our artistic heritage."
Within the European consortium, UGent will use this experience to focus on a Time Machine for the old Flemish cities of Ghent and Bruges, from the Middle Ages to the present day. "What’s special about this," explains Deploige, "is that we see this project primarily as a lab for co-creation with both local heritage players and our colleagues in ICT research and cartography. Did you know that several Ghent-based engineers and geographers are already internationally renowned for their work in developing web and database technologies that help make heritage accessible? Together, we will contribute an important Flemish piece to the larger puzzle of the European Big Data of the Past."
Storming of the Bastille
According to the Flemish scientists, the Time Machine project is based on three major pillars. The first is a strong emphasis on science and innovative technology, with extensive use of artificial intelligence and big data. The second has to do with the operational aspect. Kestemont: "In time, we want to roll out an extensive Time Machine network throughout Europe. Obviously, smaller cities don’t have the means to develop the technology themselves, but in the long term they will be able to participate through a franchise model."
The third pillar concerns the user side of things. According to the scientists, the Time Machine project will offer unprecedented educational opportunities, enabling students to experience, say, the storming of the Bastille, or the Battle of the Golden Spurs, in virtual reality. Users will also be able to provide input: Time Machine will become more and more valuable as people keep adding lots of old family photos and documents. "This is how we will create a sort of historical social network," the scientists say. "Another example is that new Antwerp residents will be able to upload the stories of their immigration after WWII, which are not yet well-documented, and link them to places and spaces in the city."
A More Tighly-Knit Urban Community
Another enthusiastic supporter of the project is the City of Antwerp. All city museums and archives are participating. "Antwerp has a rich history," explains mayor Bart De Wever. "Through better knowledge of our past, we can better understand the present and learn lessons for the future. That’s why it’s important that we work together with the university in backing the Time Machine project. A better understanding of our city and our beautiful heritage will also lead to a more tightly-knit urban community."
On 18 March, the official launch of the Time Machine project will be held at the Brussels State Archives, also a partner of the project. "Many institutions and organisations are already participating, but new partners - including from the industrial sector, for instance - are still welcome to join," concludes Ilja Van Damme. "We have partners in a wide range of sectors. For example, computer game developer Ubisoft is already on board. The possibilities to create synergies are virtually endless."