Lost Ports of the Zwin

Medieval Bruges has been coined as “the cradle of capitalism”, a place where goods, ideas and people converged into a unique, international and productive environment. The development of the city into one of Europe’s main commercial hubs was only possible via its connection to the North Sea. A tidal inlet, called the Zwin, linked Bruges to the rest of Europe and beyond and was dotted with a series of outports at its banks. Each one of these harbours had a particular role to play in a strongly connected socio-economic network dominated by Bruges. Natural, political and economic factors all resulted in the eventual downfall of Bruges and the Zwin in the 16th century. The outports shrunk from cities into hamlets or even disappeared entirely from the landscape. The modern-day remains of the fromer vitral artery of Bruges our now preserved in the landscape on both sides of the Belgian-Dutch border. In an effort to revive this lost harbour system in the most accurate way, an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, (art) historians and geologists teamed up with local experts and creative artists (see flow chart for the applied methodology). The result of this collaborative action is a cycle tour taking visitors in the landscape on both sides of border, and enriched which VR viewers visualize what is now lost, and a temporary exhibition, where innovative technologies introduce the visitors to new insights on the medieval Zwin and the many people who lived and traded there.

The main aim of the ‘Lost Ports of the Zwin’ project is not only to bring the results of interdisciplinary scientific research to the wider audience, but foremost to create holistic immersive experiences that draw the visitors’ attention to the profound transformations of the local coastal landscape, the human resilience and the continuous adaption to new coastal landscape-conditions through time. We aspire to recreate, reveal and display the unique but disappeared and invisible medieval maritime cultural landscape. To do so, we are integrating a wide range of immersive experiences and educational interventions in a multi-activity manner. As a result, we can target a wide range of visitors and AR/VR-consumers; both active and passive, both young and old; and both layman and expert. Moreover, the variety of applications and instruments is tailored specifically to impact visitors of the region on a long term, surpassing the duration of a temporary exposition. All of this has been developed in 4 languages (English, Dutch, French and German), aiming to attract visitors from all over Europe. This way, the project gives a much-needed incentive to relaunch the local economy in post-COVID times and is equally reflective of the melting pot of cultures that constituted the medieval Zwin.

The project consists of three main parts, running over three terms and with six different AR/VR-installations.

Temporary Exhibition in the Zwin Nature Park – 5 months

The exhibition in the Zwin Nature Park (ZNP) is the basis of the project. It consists of three separate rooms: a lobby with an artistic installation of medieval ballast stones, the main exhibition room and an immersive space. The main exhibition area is dominated by a large (9 m x 2.5 m) Monumental Augmented Table . This AR-application is shaped as a large piece of furniture in which the topography of the Zwin area is 3D printed. On this scale model, the landscape history of the last 2000 years of this specific area is projected with augmented reality and motion design in a 12-minute loop. This innovative installation is evolutionary in nature. It is possible to modify or add elements by using the images screened on the model. Attached to the longitudinal sides of the table are six showcases in which specific elements of the material culture of the outport system are highlighted with archaeological finds. The combination of both innovative AR-experiences and a more classic museological presentation of objects in one central piece of furniture has been a challenging exercise for all partners involved, but resulted in an engaging eye-catcher that attracts both young and old, layman and expert. The Monumental Augmented Table is further enriched by four more showcases in which more thematic stories are exhibited: how to navigate on open waters without a GPS, how to keep your boat afloat, how to trade in a world without calculators and euros, and how to find the lost ports of the Zwin using the latest technologies for non-invasive archaeological research. The story-lines are enriched with original historic text documents and archaeological finds.

A second AR-table is geared towards children and takes the form a Sandbox . This interactive table allows visitors to recreate tidal inlets or dikes. LiDAR technology is constantly monitoring the elevation of the sand and instantly displays matching colors that refer to topographic height differences. It is a powerful technology that enables visitors to discover the history of the Zwin and the evolution of the landscape in a playful and interactive way and to understand the ins and outs of it. In particular, it allows to recreates the storm surge of the 12th century that created the estuary itself. The sandbox is strategically positioned in the middle of the exhibition area, so parents can always keep an eye on their offspring while visiting the rest of the exhibition. The experiences of the first month of the exhibition learn however that the sandbox is equally popular with children as with adults.

The third and final room of the exhibition is conceptualized as a semi-enclosed immersive space , in which a 270° animated VR-reconstruction of the outport system is projected in a 10-minute loop. The animated video is projected on the wall in high resolution and allows visitors to experience the passage through the Zwin outport system, from its mouth in Sluis, along the different outports, until the arrival in Bruges. The immersive space is conceptualized from the perspective of an arriving sailor or merchant; positioned in the crow’s nest of an Italian galley when sailing into Sluis, landing on the muddy banks of Monnikerede, watching the cargo being transferred in Damme, and rowing into the idyllic canals of harbour terminal Bruges.

Cycle Tour with VR-viewers & Web App – 3 years

The second pillar in this project is a cycle tour along the shores of the medieval Zwin. The maximum distance is 60km and loops in between Bruges and the ZNP, where cyclists can visit the exhibition. Shortcuts allow to reduce the tour to 45km or 30km. On four locations, nearby four of the medieval harbour sites, outdoor VR-viewers, the Timescope Terminal , allow a 360° time-travel to the virtually reconstructed harbours in 4K quality and with stereo sound embedded. The Terminals allow to revive the medieval landscape and harbour atmosphere on the exact location of the archaeological sites. Again, these VR-viewers strongly appeal to the sense of place of visitors, which are of particular importance to identify with archaeological sites and historical landscapes. The Timescope Terminal is a self-service device and user-friendly for all audiences as the display unit adapts to the user's height. Thus, persons with reduced mobility can also make use of the VR-viewer. Through a multi-lingual touch interface passengers can choose to be guided in both Dutch, French, German and English. The Timescope Terminal is manufactured in Europe and specifically designed to last in outdoor spaces: weatherproof, vandal-proof ánd COVID-proof (PureZone treatment).

The cycling route is also accompanied by a so-called Web App for mobile devices (both smartphones and tablets). The Web App not only helps with navigation (it shows the user’s position on modern maps but also on the highly accurate 16th-century Pourbus map of the Zwin-area) but it also provides extra information on Points of Interest (POI) in the coastal landscape. Moreover, objects of the exhibition are visualized in 3D and can be manipulated in augmented reality using the camera function of your mobile device. A third functional aspect of the Web App is to allow larger groups to have meaningful stop-overs at the Timescope Terminals. After all, a single Terminal-experience can take up to 3 minutes. Thus, larger groups will pause for a considerable time at the terminal to allow everyone to watch the VR-movie. By positioning extra AR-experiences and POI’s via the Web App near the Terminals, stop-overs can be more worthwhile. The concepts of these extra added experiences resemble to the concept of geocaching and are also aimed the attract a younger public. For those not in the possibility to enjoy the cycle tour, the Web App is also consultable from the comfort of your own sofa, both on- and offline. Finally, a free paper cycle map is also available (300.000 pieces).

VR-viewers in the ZNP-observatory – permanent

The third installation consists of two permanent indoor VR-viewers. These Mini-Timescope Terminals consist of a self-service VR-goggle and also allow a 360° view with audio support in four languages. The Mini-Timescope Terminals are placed in the observatory that is sitting at the edge of the Zwin tidal plain. The animated VR-movie takes the viewer into a 3-minute journey of the local landscape and its historical developments. Two extra information panels provide more in-depth information on the geomorphological and geological characteristics of tidal inlets in general and introduce the visitors to the geo-archaeological methods applied by Ghent University in this area.

Education and outreach

In the Lost Ports of the Zwin’ project, innovative technologies are used as a tool to introduce new audiences to the study of our past and to offer a new and thought-provoking experience to those that are already familiar with the theme. This educative aspect is supported by a book written for the wider public, touching upon the medieval Zwin and the environmental and human-related factors that contributed to its origin and decline. Several educative packages have been developed for children, in which modern-day competences are acquired while studying the problems that our ancestors faced. At the same time, we have equally invested in the training of tour guides, to steer away from the old, sometimes stereotypical, ideas that were passed on to tourists. The outreach potential of these innovative interventions forecasted by Westtoer is to reach more than 150.000 citizens during a three-year period. This goal will be easily met. Indeed, even with COVID-related restrictions, the exposition received more than 8.000 in its first month. The virtual reality viewers (VR) placed along the cycling tour and the Mini-Timescopes in the Zwin observation centre have already been used 11.000 times during the first month of deployment.

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