Atlantic Journeys through a Dutch City's Past: Building a Mobile Platform for Urban Heritage

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Mark L. Thompson

    Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (University of Groningen)

  2. 2. Joanne van der Woude

    Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (University of Groningen)

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

The complexities of the relationship between Europe and America—historical, commercial, ideological, cultural—are so manifold that digitally rendering them may seem quixotic. Yet our mobile software application Amerigo sets out to do just that: explore meaningful, multi-layered connections through space and time between the Netherlands, America, and the broader Atlantic World. In its current phase, Amerigo uses a single location as its jumping-off point—the city of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands—and maps its role in Atlantic colonial networks during the Dutch “Golden Age.” It charts these relationships through an interactive digital narrative interwoven into the space of the city itself.
The lead character in Amerigo’s first storyline is Rock Brasiliano, a Groninger who went to Dutch Brazil in the mid-seventeenth century and then became one of the archetypal “pirates of the Caribbean” (Exquemelin, 1678). As users of Amerigo walk through the city, they will also encounter other memorable characters from the period, including a crypto-Copernican scientist who helped to found the University of Groningen; his mother, a Mennonite martyr; rival botanists arguing over West Indian specimens; shopkeepers vending tobacco from the English Chesapeake; and a Tupi Indian from Brazil training to become a Reformed minister. These characters—all based on real historical individuals—vividly illustrate Groningen’s place in a multi-nodal Atlantic network. Indeed, this complex set of relations, seemingly too vast for one person’s grasp, becomes tangible and comprehensible as Amerigo’s users choose their way through the story-space of the city.
Why is early modern Groningen an especially promising locale for such an experiment? In the last twenty-five years, study of the Atlantic World as a complex, interconnected space has drawn together once disparate histories of early modern Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and West Africa (Greene and Morgan, 2009). At the same time, scholars and activists in Europe have brought increased attention to the colonial past embedded within their own countries and cultures, especially with regard to slavery and the slave trade (Oostindie, 2011). Meanwhile, heritage institutions have begun to highlight dimensions of this past, as well—often sparking controversy as triumphal accounts are challenged or replaced by complex, critical, multi-centered narratives. Finally, individuals and institutions are developing new forms of digital heritage through websites, games, and tours that shed light on these historical connections (Hondius et al., 2014; Fokken and Henkes, 2016). History and heritage, always closely linked, have only become more tightly connected as they move into the digital sphere. How these producers, consumers, and “pro-sumers” of digital history, culture, and heritage interact, however, is an open question (cf. Poole, 2018; Hagedoorn and Sauer, 2019).
A key location for all of these trends and processes is the contemporary city, which serves at once as a site for the production of modernity and a monument to its lost past (Benjamin, 1999). Human geographers, urban planners, and cultural theorists have long employed qualitative and quantitative methods to examine how people use, understand, and construct urban space in time (Lynch, 1960, 1972, 1990). In more recent years, media scholars have brought new attention to mobile narrative and locative media as subjects of study (Farman, 2014), and heritage research has focused on the significance of contemporary cities as locations for the production, consumption, and study of heritage (Ashworth et al., 2007; Sen and Johung, 2013). Meanwhile, the efforts of cycling and pedestrian advocates have converged with cities’ attempts to promote urban tourism and led to more walkable, bikeable urban centers that lend themselves to new (and old) forms of historical exploration and cultural experience (Middleton, 2016). Groningen, a busy, dense university town interlaced with shopping streets and bike paths, turns out to be an excellent location for the study of all of these domains.
In 2019 our Groningen-based consortium—consisting of academic researchers, multiple heritage institutions, and a private app developer—began building Amerigo. The application will serve different groups in different ways. As a mobile tour app produced by a commercial software company, Amerigo will enable a broad audience of users to explore the city-space of Groningen through its complex historical relationships with the Americas and the Atlantic World and to see its present and past in a new light. As a platform for the production and distribution of historical and cultural research, Amerigo will provide scholars and students with a central portal for connecting to archival collections and resources, conducting collaborative research and teaching, and sharing their complex results with the public through interactive narratives. And as a tool for the study of user behavior in relation to digital heritage, Amerigo will allow the members of the consortium to study the complex problems of how different audiences move through the space of the city, how they engage with (and contribute to) the curated content, and how they connect with one another through the application. It is here in this last area—measuring and testing how users interact with a digital heritage platform linked to a real urban space—that we foresee having the most significant impact in the digital humanities. Amerigo offers a new way of exploring these complexities together.
In our short paper we discuss the preliminary findings from our project up to the present. This discussion will include a brief overview of the paths we have taken (including some dead-ends) up to the current state of the application as of July 2019. We will also discuss our efforts to integrate development of the app with an experimental undergraduate course that was led by one of the researchers in the spring of 2019. By the time of the conference, we aim to have an early version of the application available for testing, and we are eager to receive feedback from attendees. Ultimately, our paper is intended not only to offer a portrait of a digital heritage project in progress but also to foster creative and critical thinking about how we might use digital methods to engage with our complex past.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.