Immersive Experiences And Difficult Heritage: Digital Methods As Re-interpreters Of Historically Contested Sites

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Agiatis Benardou

    Athena Research & Innovation Center in Information Communication & Knowledge Technologies, University of Glasgow

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As methods of immersive experience, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, as well as mixed methods (ie analogue and digital combined), are all means of memory re-composition in the cultural heritage domain.

Immersive experiences describe all
forms of perceptual and interactive use of technologies that blur the line between the physical world and a simulated or digital world, ie create a hybrid reality aiming at embracing all spheres of the user’s attention. Immersion can thus be sensory (audiovisual, olfactory, haptic elements), challenge-based (interaction), and/ or imaginative (narrative and interpretation).

The beginnings of immersive experiences can be traced at the end of 1960s, when philosopher and cinematographer Morton Heilig invented Sensorama, a simulator for up to four people of a motorcycle ride in Brooklyn, which created an illusion of reality through a three-dimensional film with stereo sound, vibrations of the seats, wind on the face and even smells of the city. Around the same time, Ivan Sunderland (MIT, University of Utah) developed the

Sword of Damocles

the first VR system with interaction possibilities. Since then, technologies which create immersive experiences have developed radically, primarily in the context of gaming and thematic parks, and have thus emerged as new interactive and narrative means.

Some of the most creative applications of immersive experiences appear nowadays in museums and cultural heritage sites, proposing innovative narratives and interpretations through an impressive range of digital methods. Moreover, scenarios complementing immersive experiences as well as personalized storytelling have transformed visitors experience in cultural heritage sites immensely.

Difficult heritage was a term coined by Sharon Macdonald (ICMAH Annual Conference 2007) which was defined as “concerned with histories and pasts that do not easily fit with self-identities of the groups of whose pasts or histories they are part. Instead of affirming positive self-images, they potentially disrupt them or may threaten to open up social differences and conflicts. Difficult heritage deals in unsettling histories rather than the kinds of heroic or progressive histories with which museums and heritage sites have more traditionally been associated.” Difficult heritage is relevant not only to museums focusing on the recent past, but also to all archaeological and historical sites which may present controversial and sensitive subjects. Immersive technologies are so far limited to very few difficult heritage sites: In 2017, a virtual reality experience titled

The Day the World Changed

was to commemorate the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The experience began with an explanation of the conception, development, and implementation of the atomic bomb and then proceeds to a second part focusing on the aftermath of the attack. Visitors could walk through the ruins of the city and examine artifacts from the bombing. Similarly, a
virtual reality experience developed in 2016 allows visitors to Jerusalem to see the city as it looked during the heyday of the

Second Temple


In Europe, immersive technologies have not been employed widely in historically contested sites. In Scotland, however, immersive experiences are used to enhance visitor experiences in two difficult heritage sites, Bannockburn and Culloden. In 1324 in Bannockburn, near Stirling, the Scots under Robert the Bruce defeated the English army
marking a significant Scottish victory in the First War of Scottish Independence, and making the site a landmark in Scottish history. The Battle of Bannockburn immersive experience takes visitors through a series of 3D films depicting the events during and surrounding the battle, and culminates in a visit to the Battle Room in which they have the option to participate in their own interactive battle game and are even give the chance to turn the course of history. In Culloden, east of Inverness, the 1746 battle marked the end of the Jacobite rising. The site’s visitor centre is comprised of an immersion cinema, real-life reenactments of everyday life and a game. In Britain amidst Brexit and in the context of a possible new Scottish independence referendum, both sites bear characteristics of difficult heritage and immersive experiences shape new, objective yet diverse narratives around them.

Α study by G. Yair (2014) showcased that, due the trauma the Third Reich engendered, German memorials appear to be reluctant to advocate, direct, or lead, thus shying away from manipulative educational strategies that they associate with the Third Reich. They intentionally avoid manipulating emotions or directing visitors to arrive at pre-determined moral conclusions, and refrain from using expressive props to create authentic experiences. Yair argued that despite the many possibilities for introducing visitors to authentic and challenging exhibits and artefacts, German memorial sites and documentation avoided using emotive cues. Consequently, without a more challenging approach, these sites are unlikely to create key experiences with lasting effects on visitors’ identities.

Despite the fact that the Nazi Occupation (1941-1944) in Greece has influenced public debates, inspired artistic displays and performances, the sites of memory remain invisible. The proposed talk will use the infamous Block 15 of the Haidari Concentration Camp in West Athens, the largest and most notorious concentration camp in wartime Greece, as a case study of a largely neglected site of difficult heritage and will attempt to showcase that immersive technologies would be best fit to make accessible, highlight and re-interpret both the site and the narrative surrounding it. The Block 15 showcase will employ a mixed methodological approach, in which digital methods will be applied in the re-composition of difficult memory through immersive technologies, ethnography, history and digital narratives. It will be argued that, through original scenarios based on primary and multimedia archival sources, immersive experience developed (such as interactive 3D and VR) could not only bring back to life the actual Block 15, currently an endangered monument, but could also function as reminders of the atrocities of prisoners, in an attempt to reintroduce a historically and politically contested site to heterogeneous audiences, both in situ as well as in sites outside the Concentration Camp.


Yair, G.
(2014). Neutrality, objectivity, and dissociation: Cultural trauma and educational messages in German Holocaust memorial sites and documentation centers. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 28(3), pp. 482–509.

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