How to turn visual materials, objects and buildings into “iconics”

The presentation of cultural materials in the internet is exposed to a tight competition: the critical reception by the internet community/public will decide about the success of their cultural impact in the digital world. This competitive situation demands that the presentation of photographed or digitized cultural heritage is done in an efficient, visually attractive, qualitative and yet universally acclaimed way. For minority heritage the situation seems clear: either iconic materials are presented in a way which makes a high reception possible and tags the minority in the perspective of the internet community with certain narratives linked to these materials, or the heritage will never push through and remain due to its lack of attractivity unobserved and unappreciated – maybe even by its members and descendants.

Bran Castle

A 3D model converted by aerial drone photography of the famous “Dracula Castle” Bran, built by Transylvanian Saxons in the Late Middle Ages. Screenshot taken from 

What possibilities are actually available to support these “digital cultural motorics”1 and produce “iconics”? A few theses:

I. Wikimedia Commons is surely the very best way of making minority heritage visually present: first of all Wikipedia is among the most frequented sites and beside news portals one of the top sources for information worldwide. It is therefore obvious to post there a number of excellent shot photographs on the respective cultural heritage and to make all of them usable by CC licenses. However providing only good images is not enough – the basis of such a reception are well written, informative articles in several languages which are also properly contextualizing the visual materials.

II. Closely related to a virtual Wikimedia album but nowadays only second, are illustrated printed books with photographs and other visual materials on minorities. If devised in an attractive way for the commercial mass market – what does of course not exclude a subvention by the state in order to reduce the selling price -, some success and attention should be guaranteed. A print publication has also the advantage of serving as a reference to Wikipedia, thus being more than just a complementary way of presenting cultural heritage. For a success in this regard see e.g. the countless row of illustrated books on the fortified churches of the Transylvanian Saxons which provide all elements needed for a cultural canonization of a community (castles, mountains/nature, folklore, religious mysticism, simplicity and timelessness of country life etc.). A starting point for providing a more fashionable and up-to-date sort of photographs may be aerial drone photography of historical buildings.2

III. Through video portals like YouTube people are consuming more documentary films than ever before. Even older and visually less appealing documentaries are still received to a certain degree by the internet audience. It is therefore likely to either upload (surely in compliance with the directors and other creators) already existing documentaries about a minority to a video portal or alternatively to support the making of new movies. Especially graduating students are a good choice because they like to chose non-mainstream subjects and are consequently more open towards a special theme like an ethnic minority.3

IV. Beside Wikimedia + photo albums + documentaries a forth but presently not yet established possibility is the shaping of 3D models of historical objects and buildings. For examples – again from Transylvania due to my personal research interest – see the above model of the Bran Castle and in Google Earth the Corvin Castle (also known as Hunyad Castle) of the Hungarians in Transylvania, the Great Synagogue in Budapest or the Centennial Hall in Wrocław. However it is to be stated that these are overall ostensive examples but their iconization was produced long before and outside the digital world; they were modeled because they are culturally inseparately connected to these minorities. How 3D modeling can substantially contribute to the documentation of minority heritage like buildings is still to be figured out; until now there are no examples (beside Google Earth; at least I do not know others) that 3D modelling has been undertaken for more than just one place following an overall concept, i.e. has been done systematically for a certain minority and is not going back just to individual initiatives.

Nevertheless one can expect that there will be a considerable boost in 3D modeling in the not so far future: if the current virtual reality hype – see e.g. the Oculus Rift development process – proves to be substantial and the technology has a real breakthrough, then it is expected that virtual reality will play also an important role in cultural representations in combination with an Open World gaming-like concept. This will surely take some time because the commercial sector has to develop and mature the technology before it is ready to be applied by cultural activities. But as soon as there is an efficient editor which enables also amateurs to easily shape 3D models in open world surroundings and make them publicly available for experiencing these in virtual reality, we will have very likely 3D modeled content in excess. In the present the problem is that people are expecting more than just to look at models: they want to interact with these like they are used to in video games, i.e. they want to at least virtually walk through the buildings they are seeing. If virtual reality can provide a gaming-like experience for self-made 3D modelation, then this will be the next-generation digitization of cultural heritage, enabling us even to raise objects and buildings to iconics which with the current technology are difficult to present.


Image from the project Lublin 2.0 which recreates with the use of a Google Earth plugin the city in four models as it is documented for the 14th, 16th, 18th century and the 1930s.

In contrast see screenshots taken from the open world video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”, set in a medieval-like fantasy universe where the player can walk almost everywhere:



The currently existing qualitative differences between scientific reconstructions and commercial video game representations are most obvious; open source editors, cost and time reduction are therefore desiderata for enabling in the future the use of virtual worlds for cultural activities.

  1. For this term and some additional considerations see my other article: []
  2. Speaking of which and departing from print materials one should also take into consideration a newly popularized and very successful photography style shaped by a group of Russian photographers: with photos from heights or 360° aerial views they made digital photography albums and a bestseller iPad app using the digital format of an illustrated book: In many regards this represents an evolutionary step in digital photography which will surely find many imitators. []
  3. A successful example is the movie “Gherdeal” from 2006, directed by Martin Nudow and Thomas Beckmann: []

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