Interpretation Innovations: 3D Digital and Physical Reconstructions at the Palais des Papes and the Caverne du Pont d’Arc
Having just completed three years creating 3D digital reconstructions of the programmable machines described by the ancient Greek writer Hero of Alexandria (On automata-making, Περί αὐτοματοποιητικῆς), I was excited to discover that the use of a Histopad by Histovery came free with my recent visit to the Palais des Papes in Avignon. In many of the rooms, holding the pad over a designated station turned the Histopad into a window into the 14th century Palais. Wherever the viewer moved the pad, a reconstruction of the 14th century space, complete with furnishings and cardinals, as appropriate, was visible. The reconstructions were excellent: visually lavish with rich colours and realistic lighting from reconstructed fires. They were seamless and fast, keeping pace with even the quickest movement of the device. Headphones allowed audio commentary as you drank in the visual delights. Furthermore, clicking on links in the reconstruction brought up 3D models of surviving, period objects such as would have been used in each room. These could be rotated at will. These links were chained together to form a game of recovering coins from each space, about which my 5-year-old son became completely obsessed.
He wasn’t the only one. The whole experience was compelling and immersive. I soon found that, once informed by my device that a reconstruction was available, I was rushing to the station to get it. Finally, as I was leaving one room I realized that I had no idea what the actual surviving walls looked like: I had not looked directly at them at all.
I realized that I had completely ceased to do what I normally really enjoyed about visiting historical monuments: interrogating each new space, trying to decipher its function from the surviving remains, and imagining what it had once been like. I had also stopped discussing possible interpretations with my companions, being absorbed in my individual experience. I decided that, for me at least, I had to exercise self-restraint, delaying the gratification of the 3D reconstruction until I had first engaged my own critical faculties and imagination.
The most important piece of advice that I have been provided in my career came back to me. Just as I was beginning my own research into the ancient world, Edwin Judge (Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University) advised me to gather and read all the ancient information on my topic, and analyse and synthesize it before reading any more recent interpretations. Other people’s interpretations, especially cogently-argued and authoritatively-stated ones, tend to suppress one’s own critical thinking and imagination. This lavish and immersive reconstruction was certainly, in 3D digital terms, compelling and authoritative, and I had suspended my own thinking, becoming a passive and happily entertained consumer. It was easy to elevate this interpretation to a pedestal where there was no room for rivals.
As I continued through the Palais, I wondered how it might be possible to make use of this fantastic and digestible visual summary of scholarly investigation into these spaces, while still encouraging the viewers to think for themselves. In conversation afterwards, I suggested that inviting the users to try to decipher the function of a space for themselves, perhaps by choosing from a list of options, before presenting the virtual interpretation might be one way to stimulate them to interpret a space before viewing the virtual reconstruction. My companions pointed out that learning how to use a new system was difficult enough: no extra obstacles should be placed in the way of the visitors, many or most of whom, after all, were primarily seeking entertainment rather than education. All information additional to the simulation should be opt-in, e.g. by clicking through a link, and not a barrier to the use of the device.
As far as I could see, presentation of the evidence and inferences underpinning the reconstruction was lacking, at least in the English version I was using. I hasten to add that I may have missed this while responding to the incessant requests of my five-year old for assistance in the search for coins… an outline of the reasoning behind the reconstruction would be a great candidate for opt-in additional information. This would educate and perhaps encourage critical reflection and communal debate amongst those who wanted extra information.
Perhaps the best way to do this would be through interviews with the academics and animators involved in the creation of the 3D model. This was the approach taken in another excellent site reconstruction I recently had the pleasure of visiting: the Caverne du Pont d’Arc not far away in the Ardeche. This is a physical (and slightly compressed) reconstruction of a site as it is today. Its purpose is to bring the 36 000-year-old masterpieces of the Grotte Chauvet to a wider audience, while also protecting them and and allowing ongoing research at this very special site. The visitors’ centre had short video interviews with the cave’s discoverers and the various scientists (geologists, palaeontologists, archaeologists, art historians) that have studied the cave and its environmental context. These personalized accounts were an engaging way to present this information.
No one would dispute that the videos and other excellent materials in the Caverne’s visitor’s centre are interpretation, but the Caverne itself should also be considered interpretation. Interpretation Australia, my home country’s peak body for heritage interpretation, defines interpretation thus:
Heritage interpretation communicates ideas, information and knowledge about natural or historic places in a way which helps visitors to make sense of their environment. Good interpretation will create engaging, unique and meaningful experiences for visitors. Interpretation takes many forms including guided walks, talks, drama, art, sculpture, displays, signs, brochures and electronic media as well as any other way in which ideas can be communicated.
Judging from the photos, the Caverne is an extremely accurate reconstruction of the Grotte Chauvet. Like at the Palais des Papes, the visitors can easily forget that they are not viewing the actual site. The Caverne is a reconstruction, however, and thus is information about the site, conveyed in an unusual and interesting medium, not the site itself. So, I will conclude by giving both sites a grade according to the criteria provided by Interpretation Australia.
Good interpretation should:
- enrich the visitor’s experience by making it more meaningful and enjoyable;
Top marks for enjoyment here for the lush digital world created by Histovery, which also conveys meaning by illustrating the function of the rooms of the Palais des Papes and some of the important events that occurred there: 10/10. Assigning a grade for the Caverne du Pont d’Arc is more difficult. Visiting a reconstruction is never going to compare to viewing a window into Pleistocene life with your own eyes. Nevertheless, the Caverne is about as good as a reconstruction can get, going to great lengths to create a cave-like atmosphere to accompany the faithful reconstructions of the cave paintings and other archaeological features, such as bear skull arrangements. It is certainly meaningful and enjoyable. 8/10.
Both sites shared one minor flaw, however. The geographic arrangement of the digital reconstructions at the Palais des Papes and the English audioguides of Caverne, whereby each new description was triggered as you moved into a new area, meant that your audio could be cut midstream as you inadvertently crossed some invisible line.
- assist the visitor to develop a keener awareness, appreciation and understanding of the heritage being experienced;
Both interpretations are good at this too. Perhaps the Histopad could work harder at assisting the visitor’s own development: 7/10. For the Caverne, the well-chosen 29 hectare hill-top site, with views extending far in all directions, also gives a wider appreciation of the landscape in which the Grotte Chauvet is set than would be possible from the cliff setting of the cave. The wealth of other materials in the visitor’s centre, including hands-on activities, encourages exploration. 10/10
- accomplish management objectives by encouraging thoughtful use of the resource by the visitor;
I have reservations about the Histopad’s performance in this regard, due to inherent features of digital reconstructions. Such an excellent 3D digital reconstruction has the potential to devalue, or render obsolete, the site itself. Personally, I felt this was compounded by the presence of an art exhibition within the Palais des Papes: at times the monument itself seemed almost forgotten. Someone seems to have been aware of this possibility, as the rooms with the best preserved frescoes were not given a digital reconstruction. The immersive nature of the reconstruction also increases the possibility of the visitor inadvertently brushing against the walls, not being aware of fellow visitors, or not seeing management devices such as roped-off areas and signs asking the visitor not to touch. 3/10. The Caverne is a triumph in the achievement of management objects: a perfect outcome for site preservation that apparently goes even beyond the wildest hopes of the formulator of this criterion: 100/10!
- promote public understanding of heritage management organisations and their programs.
Both interpretations present an innovative and exciting face for heritage management organizations: 10/10.
Perhaps I could suggest other criteria to Interpretation Australia: Leave room for competitors, including those of the viewer? Document the journey as well as the destination?
Duncan Keenan-Jones is a research fellow at the Collegium de Lyon. In collaboration with the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon UMR 5276 CNRS/Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon and the Laboratoire Archéorient UMR 5133 CNRS/Université Lyon 2, he is investigating the relationship between climate, volcanism and history in around the Bay of Naples in antiquity, using textual and material remains as well as limestone deposits from caves and water systems.