VOC Data Experience
The Dutch East India Company kept extensive records of the crews, of its ships and of its business with Asia. Much of this information of the eighteenth century is kept. They give a behind-the-scenes look at an economic machine. But not only that. Behind the cold administration are stories, stories of people of flesh and blood, about migration, exploitation and unprecedented mortality.

With spectacular visualizations in augmented reality (AR), the VOC Data Experience brings the VOC's data to life. What do the datasets reveal about the acclaimed and infamous history of the VOC?

Challenge When dealing with the history of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) Cultural heritage institutions in the Netherlands face a balancing act. On the one hand, they do not want to present a shallow story, but any more in-depth interpretation risks evoking irritation (or worse). This is because the debate on the history of the company has become strongly polarised in recent years. On one side, people cling to the traditional view of a daring company that traded on an equal footing with Asian peoples, and while doing so created wealth and spread culture. On the opposing side, people view the VOC as thoroughly bad and an important source of issues like racism in modern-day Dutch society. The situation is currently in a stalemate.

We set out from the idea that a creative project could help museums and other institutions in facing this challenge. Specifically, an augmented reality (AR) experience could help them reach their audiences in new, interactive and stimulating ways: AR pulls people out of everyday reality, which makes them receptive to different opinions than their own.

The opportunity for creating this project was the availability of incredibly rich data collections about the VOC – raw data, collected centuries ago in the Netherlands and at the company’s various outposts, which were later published as online resources by archival and research institutions. Our goal was to stimulate visitors to wander through these data and at the same time curious to learn the latest insights of a diverse group of scholars about the company’s history.

Idea The VOC-past cannot be erased. We have to relate to this. The VOC Data Experience appeals to this issue by raising provocative questions about the VOC and by providing data-based answers that are presented in an accessible, contemporary way.

In order to do justice to the many perspectives and sensitivities that surround the discussion about the VOC, we decided to cooperate with a variety of specialist voices with different angles from the VOC debate. Each specialist was invited to ask a question about the VOC from their angle that would be answered by a data expert. This led to dialogues between the specialists and a data expert that shone a surprising, many-voiced light on our VOC past.

The answers to the questions are revealed to the visitor during a step by step journey through data in Augmented Reality. The data itself -of half a million names of people that were on board of the VOC-ships - is very abstract. But it becomes much more impressive and meaningful when you see them visualized in an infinite space where you can wander through. Visitors will see the data cloud transform into datavisualizations that provide answers to the questions of the specialists.

In doing so, the VOC Data Experience offers a wide audience an innovative visitor experience based on raw data and a multi-perspective approach, and thus contributes to and shapes the dialogue in the debate about the sensitive VOC history.

Execution We believe this project shows excellent craftsmanship in two ways: Firstly in the many-voiced approach and secondly in the artistic use of AR.

In each experience, the visitor is accompanied by two guides: a data-expert and a heritage/inclusion specialist who sheds light on the data from a new and often surprising perspective. Contributors: Dyonna Benett, Jelle van Lottum, Wim Manuhutu, Lodewijk Petram, Matthias van Rossum and Suze Zijlstra. By creating the experience together with the experts, a many-voiced experience is created that does justice to the complicated history and allows a wide audience to look at history from a new perspective.

We believe data visualizations in AR can make data tangible and emotive. Images are easily ‘readable’ when representing a relatable situation, such as a hungry child in the desert. But they are also very exemplary. Charts, on the other hand, can represent thousands of people very precisely. But the human aspect, and with it the sensibility and emotiveness, is completely absent. We decided to blend them and create a new visual language. The use of AR created an immersive space that we filled with iconic and data-driven images. This allows a visitor to relate spatially to the content and interact with it. The AR experiences are of a unique size, usually AR-applications are 'table'-size, we work on a scale of 100m2, allowing us to house an entire VOC-ship or use huge maps. This use of AR provided enormous creative freedom and resulted in a unique experience.

Preview experiences: https://youtu.be/eA1u7rilRSw Promovideo: https://youtu.be/Bsi8l6Y_Hl4