CRCDM – Creating Visitor Experiences in Cultural Heritage
As Head of the Centre for Research Creation in Digital Media (CRCDM) in the School of Arts at Sunway University, Professor Harold Thwaites’ areas of research-creation cover a wide area ranging from multimedia, information design and digital heritage to audience impact analysis. In fact, most of the work that he has been doing since coming to Malaysia over a decade ago has been in digital cultural heritage. He has been very passionate about preserving fragile cultural heritage himself and has always looked for ways to “re-present” digital cultural heritage to a wider Malaysian audience.
By incorporating the concept of polysensory intermedia into cultural heritage exhibitions, Professor Thwaites creates new experiences for gallery visitors. He explains: “We have to move beyond the traditional gallery and exhibition forms into the realm of digital technology in order to engage the new born-digital generation of audience who come ‘equipped’ with their devices.”
For instance, by downloading one of our project applications (App), a visitor can use a mobile phone to source augmented reality (AR) content on the screen. “The polysensory intermedia approach takes you on a journey involving multiple senses,” he explains. “It hits the spaces between the media as it targets layers of content to give a new mediated experience.” In other words, it enhances beyond the amount of information of just one sense by integrating digital media technology.
Context vs Technology
Professor Thwaites says that it is the content that should drive the use of technology in this post-digital era, where we are more concerned with the impact of our ubiquitous digital affordances. “There is always a need for a good balance between the heritage aspects of any exhibition (or content) and the technology you choose to use,” he explains. For our work in CRCDM, the medium must “match” the message. Professor Thwaites firmly believes in making sure that both the tangible and intangible aspects of cultural heritage are protected from future loss and enjoyed by contemporary audiences of all ages.
"Virtual environments or augmented reality, and digital heritage (DH) environments in particular, are excellent examples of complex forms of information since they must be communicated to diverse audiences, spanning continents, cultural groups, time periods and different semantic and aesthetic experiences” he says. “Media research is indeed very different from the sciences because it is often more qualitative than quantitative. It is research about that quality that is often elusive.”
Professor Thwaites current projects include a new, multi-partner Virtual-Augmented Reality Research Network (VARRN)”, the “Handbook Project” with Concordia University in Montreal, part of the ACT Project, and the unique CRCDM project, the “Hainan Boat Builder of Pangkor Island”. These projects among several others, are collaborations in research-creation. No one person can really do this kind of work in an effective way. The reason why he qualifies his work as research-creation is because it comprises a number of areas including research for creation, research from creation, creative presentations of research and creation as research. Because of this, Professor Thwaites has attracted substantial funding for all his projects between 2006-2021.
As an example, the Hainan Boatbuilder is an ongoing, collaborative, transdisciplinary project undertaken to digitally capture, archive and preserve the livelihood of the maritime craftsmen of Pangkor Island, thereby contributing to the cultural heritage of the country. It has resulted in a dynamic archive of the building process, multiple journals articles, three exhibitions and a collaboration with Google Arts and Culture, wherein visitors from around the world can access the boatbuilder archive and an exhibition in four parts. Our responsibility and objective in this project were to digitally preserve this fragile Malaysian cultural heritage for the future.” It includes using scientific techniques such as 3D modelling, photogrammetry, high-end digital video and at the same time, taking the end results out of the university to various audiences through International Conferences, seminars and a variety of exhibitions in both the real and virtual realms.
The CRCDM team led by Professor Thwaites continues to innovate new projects and collaborations in Malaysia and beyond.