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JISC 3D Visualisation in the Arts Network

3DVisA Bulletin, Issue 4, March 2008

ISSN 1751-8962 (Print)
ISSN 1751-8970 (Online)

3DVisA Discussion Forum

Editorial note: This article contributes to the discussion on the merits and drawbacks of digital visualisation of cultural heritage, initiated in the September 2006 issue of the 3DVisA Bulletin. Here, Hilary Canavan offers a damning criticism of Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz's article, Illusions of Virtual Reality, published in September 2007. Refering to the technology of computer modelling as impressive and useful, and not doubting its future developement, Buczynska-Garewicz expressed concern with virtual recreations of the past which pretend to be true to human experience of lived time and space, as seen from a phenomenological perspective.


Hilary Canavan refutes Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz's criticism of virtual reconstructions of heritage

Reading Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz's condemnation of three-dimensional visualisation in general and the Cerveteri Reborn project in particular in the September 2007 issue of the 3DVisA Bulletin, is certainly a jolting experience for a student new to the digital humanities and 3D visualisation. For Buczynska-Garewicz, the fallacy that drives 3D visualisation projects, and simultaneously seals their shared fate as misguided endeavour, is the belief that a virtual reality can replace or improve upon the fragmentary archaeological remains of today and the experience of visiting ruins in situ to better understand the flesh and blood, bricks and mortar reality of the distant past.

This retort endeavours to show that if this belief conditions any 3D visualisation projects at all, it certainly does not condition Cerveteri Reborn or indeed, any scholarly or sensitive visualisation extant today. And by dint of a very close reading of Buczynska-Garewicz's contribution to the 3DVisA Bulletin, what follows furthermore aims to highlight more fundamental problems relating to the (sometimes wilful) misunderstandings, misrepresentations and laxity of rigour that can negatively condition the reception of academic 3D visualisations in a fashion without parallel in the serious criticism of resources in more traditional media.

Emerging warrior-like from the phenomenological explanation of the concept of presencing, in the first paragraph, Buczynska-Garewicz launches 'some sceptical notions regarding the utilisation of 3D visualisation'. The opening salvo draws strength from her opposition's perceived inability to appreciate the paucity of a virtual experience when compared with the cognitively and emotionally 'fruitful', real-life experience of being amongst modern-day ruins. From this she deduces rather jarringly, 'the virtual reality constituted by computer pretends to be "the reality as it truly was"'. This is immediately followed by the wildly far-fetched and entirely unsubstantiated assertion:

'So, illusion replaces reality. My objections to the numerous abuses (not use, but abuse) of the 3D visualisations of cultural historical heritage are against the pretentious claim that the model is (or can be) a faithful or complete copy of a no longer existing reality, and the impoverishment of human experience of time and space by an attempt to "visualise the invisible". Re-create stays in opposition to interpret or to understand.'

That computer-based, virtual experiences and real-life, lived experiences are innately different would seem to be a truism hardly worth mentioning if it were not for Buczynska-Garewicz's insinuation that creators of 3D visualisations assume as their ultimate objective the creation of a computer-based illusion so convincing and total in its perceived reality that it transcends or supersedes lived reality. In this scenario, reality itself becomes an obstacle to be overcome, rather than the starting point and source from which virtual reality itself entails. Would we presume the same dark motivations of narrative works of history, archaeological surveys, architectural drawings, or even of photographs or films, which by virtue of their more exacting mimetic capacities, elicited not dissimilar accusations of having a duplicitous relationship with the real, once upon a time? But that's old hat. That the acts of writing descriptively, compiling, comparing and extrapolating quantitative and qualitative data, making analogue and digital, static or moving two-dimensional representations – whether realistic, imagined, straightforward or highly manipulated – are all accepted forms of conveying interpretation is, again, old hat. Whether such interpretations improve, confuse or are of negligible value to understanding is to be determined by academic subject communities and others who look carefully at the rationale, supporting and corroborating evidence and reasonableness of a given interpretation. Scholarly 3D visualisations too are interpretations, the best of which make no secret of their existence as such and are equally deserving of robust academic evaluations that scrutinise them alongside an extended family of varied interpretations presented in a variety of media in ways that meaningfully progress dialogue and debate.

Buczynska-Garewicz continues, 'In terms of romantic enjoyment of ruins it [3D visualisation of cultural historical heritage] means to replace the still real ruin by a newly constructed product'. Long rejected is the sort of ethos that led Arthur Evans to create the Disneyland experience of modern-day Knossos. Not only are 3D visualisations unable to impose their biases in situ in the physically destructive, obstructive and even obfuscating manner of 19th and early 20th century archaeological reconstruction projects, of which Knossos is a notorious example, they are not, and logically cannot be, replacements for ruins – irrespective of the capabilities of the technology now or in future. Visualisations of heritage sites are in a relationship of entailment with the ruins to which they refer. Ruins are the de facto starting point, the inalienable primary source of the visualisations which seek to enter the body of interpretation – textual and visual – that supplements our understanding of them. Whereas ruins remain sanctified in the sense that they largely exist outside the realm of qualitative analyses such that we do not talk about good or bad ruins, seminal or sloppy ruins, we do subject their interpretations to such forms of scrutiny through codified, academic evaluative processes. In the case of 3D visualisation, however, these processes are in the early stages of being defined, and as Buczynska-Garewicz's example makes clear, have yet to filter into mainstream academic discourse.

For Buczynska-Garewicz, two 'hidden presumptions' underlie projects that recreate historical spaces: 'That the totality has a higher value than a fragment’, and '…that certainty with no gap left for doubt is needed and welcome'. Here again, by virtue of their fundamentality to the disciplines they have spawned and sustained, historically significant fragments simply cannot be supplanted in terms of value, or anything else, by interpretations that attempt to augment their meaning and significance. No one thinks, for example, that future scholars will entirely disregard actual fragments in favour of 3D visualisations. The fragment, the actual historical material, is and will continue to be the starting point for attempts at its interpretation (with the possible exception of those interpretations that take as their subject of inquiry a body of thematically linked interpretations, such as is the case in reception studies). As part of this wider culture of scholarly interpretations of cultural heritage, projects such as Cerveteri Reborn make no claim to impart 'certainty' at all; arguably, the need within ambitious visualisation projects to garner consensus amongst numerous scholars and experts, drawn from varied academic disciplines and technical backgrounds and the inherent dependency relationships that obtain within 3D visualisations that mean a single inaccuracy can implicate all component parts of the whole make such claims wholly indefensible. Rather than being perceived as fonts of certainty, visualisations are instead vital generators of doubt, elicited and provisionally reconciled through the course of asking and answering the myriad questions surrounding each and every aspect and element of a virtual reconstruction.

In her first direct quote of the piece, at the start of her more focused attack on Cerveteri Reborn, Buczynska-Garewicz in fact misquotes Luciana Bordoni and Sandro Rubino by presenting what is a question in the original, ('What makes it [a virtual entity] believable and perceived as objective?') as if it were a declarative statement: 'The project Cerveteri Reborn speaks about "making a virtual entity believable and perceived as objective"'. She continues, 'In other words, it intends to present its own creation (computer model), which is only an interpretation, as a "true reality"'. This misquote skews not only the letter, but also the spirit of the Italian scholars' project description on the 3DVisA website, throughout which the hypothetical, speculative, provisional and potentially transmutable nature of the project is continually reiterated.

Even a quick scan of Bordoni and Rubino's text reveals that it is peppered with words and phrases that explicitly counter the narrow and nonsensical pursuit of objectivity and 'true reality’ of which they and their colleagues are accused. 'Exploration’, 'hypotheses', 'incompleteness', 'missing parts', 'randomness', 'strong doubts', 'partially solving problems', 'leaving room for further historical reconstruction', 'hypothetical placement', 'planning further developments': This is hardly the convinced, overconfident language one would expect to condition the phantom 3D visualisations of Buczynska-Garewicz's nightmares.

What's in a name? Seemingly a very great deal in Buczynska-Garewicz's view. We are told, 'Certainly there is nothing wrong with the attempts to reconstruct. But false and illusive is the claim that reconstruction can replace the real reality, that Cerveteri can be "reborn"'. Moreover:

'There are at least two main arguments here. Technological tools are mediating in the process and they make all the process of recreation only a case of interpretation, i.e. one of many possible presentations, not certain and not absolute. Second, the space of human culture is not only a purely physical phenomenon, but it is a lived space with all its spiritual (cognitive and emotional) meanings and this aspect of it is missed in the "reborn Cerveteri".'

For someone so unabashedly keen on the spiritual and emotional, Buczynska-Garewicz's zero tolerance for the poetic licence evident in the title Cerveteri Reborn seems remarkably uncharitable. And perhaps this title does seem somewhat puerile and naively, even greedily, ambitious when taken at face value. But face value is hardly the stuff of academic discourse. Within the wider milieu of visualisations treating the ancient world, Cerveteri Reborn has in Rome Reborn an illustrious precedent, and one that adopted its name, 'in homage to the founding text in the field of Roman topography, the De Roma instaurata of Flavio Biondo (1444-46)'.1

As the culmination of a decade-long collaboration between the specialist visualisation labs at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Virginia and the Politecnico di Milano and very many of the world's leading scholars in Roman history, architecture and archaeology, Rome Reborn is one of the most enterprising and academically rigorous visualisation projects in the humanities to date. Understood in this context, Cerveteri Reborn can be viewed both as a thematic extension of the visualisation of sites important to the history of the ancient Italic peninsula and as a visualisation project which seeks to find its place in a lineage distinguished by scholarship of the highest order.

In the supporting documentation that attends Cerveteri Reborn no claims are made that even vaguely approximate the grossly over-egged assertions of the project's detractor. And the closer one looks at the detailed project description of Cerveteri Reborn, the more one is flummoxed by Buczynska-Garewicz's choice of this project – and this project alone – to bolster her argument. Nowhere do Bordoni and Rubino suggest anything approaching the claims that 'reconstruction can replace reality' or that visualisations can capture 'lived space with all its spiritual (cognitive and emotional) meanings'. Nowhere do they imply or explicitly state that their model is 'faithful’, 'true’ or 'complete’. And unless one assumes a bull-headed literalism and/or the absolute worst of the intellectual capacity of those who have participated in Cerveteri Reborn, it is difficult to imagine what motivates these accusations in the absence of corroborating documentary or anecdotal evidence vis-à-vis this 3D visualisation project – or any other for that matter. Indeed, given that Cerveteri Reborn is not available for viewing on the internet nor widely available on DVD, one wonders on what basis Buczynska-Garewicz or anyone else can make well-supported, thoroughly researched judgments about the project and its outcomes for better or worse. This highlights dramatically that the evolution of adequate analytical schemata and peer review processes have not kept pace with the rapid advance of the technologies that extend the forms scholarly interpretations may now take. Debate as to how reviewers are to contend with the unique visual and virtual-experiential traits of the 3D visualisation medium, as well the blended, multi-media information environment that most often complements academic visualisations is just beginning. And it must be admitted that the misunderstandings and ambiguities evidenced here, in a token example of how 3D visualisations are being received by a largely untutored if scholarly audience, to a significant extent echo, if not compound, ambiguities perpetuated by visualisation projects themselves and, indeed, the medium as a whole, which have yet to establish and work to collectively agreed mores, standards and conventional scholarly apparatus to support intellectual transparency. Given this state of affairs – a state of affairs that is perfectly predictable in the nascent stages of the development of a new medium – commentators can be forgiven for lapses in rigour or for mobilising idiosyncratic or what may prove to be inappropriate methodologies. And certainly there is much to recommend liberal allowances for experimentation with variable approaches to analysis and appraisal, particularly as conventions are just beginning to solidify and gain currency. What should not be forgiven, however, is silent tolerance for an intellectually lackadaisical variety of critique that would simply never pass muster in any other area of academic discourse.

Early attempts at codifying and structuring the criteria ideally involved in the creation of 3D visualisations, of which the London Charter is an example, demonstrate that 3D visualisationists can and should adopt approaches to their projects that are as academically rigorous as they are in longer established media – if not more so. That the establishment of similarly robust criteria for evaluation is desperately needed has, I hope, been made abundantly clear by the foregoing.


1. Rome Reborn Project > About > The Name (Accessed December 2007).{back to text}

© Hilary Canavan and 3DVisA, 2008.

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