A Framework for Digital Heritage Interpretation

Hafizur Rahaman
Ph.D. in Architecture

Dissertation committee:
Dr. Tan Beng Kiang (main supervisor)
Dr. Heng Chye Kiang (co-supervisor)


UNESCO (2003) refers to 'digital heritage' as any 'born digital' or 'digital surrogate' objects that contain unique resources of human knowledge and expression. 'Heritage interpretation', on the other hand, is considered as an effective learning, communicating and managing tool that increases visitors' awareness and empathy to the heritage site or artefacts. In contrast, the definition of 'digital heritage interpretation' is still broad; so far, neither a method nor objective is evident within the domain of 'digital heritage' theory and discourse.

In most cases, digital heritage projects remain descriptive; their objectives are diverse while their works, at large, presume that technology delivers greater interpretation. Developed through a top-down approach with linear narratives, such projects assume end-users as unique entity and limit heritage to a mere consumable product. Although usage of new technologies may accentuate experience and visual fidelity, they only provide partial interpretation, as technology alone cannot offer the past from multiple perspectives.

This research thereby argues that, for better interpretation and experience of digital heritage, a comprehensive interpretive method is required. Instead of predefined instructional sequences or descriptive interpretation, it hypothesizes interpretation as an evolving 'process' that is participatory and contributive. The interpretive process that allows public participation as reflexive dialogic interaction with effective presentation, cultural learning and embodiment enhances end-users' interpretation of digital heritage.

A review of theory and methodology from real-world 'heritage interpretation' is found inadequate to be adopted and implemented in the digital heritage realm. As such, this research presents a theoretical construct ascertained from multiple disciplines (i.e. Heritage management, HCI and Behavioural science), and explicated four objectives for a comprehensive interpretive process. A conceptual model followed and is further developed into a conceptual framework. This framework was then implemented and tested on an online platform to measure its impact on end-users' interpretation level. Praxis of the conceptual framework was substantiated by converging four aspects and fifteen considerations to achieve a higher satisfaction, provocation, learning, and understanding of the past from multiple perspectives of end-users.

A comparative experiment was conducted among the controlled groups to compare the effectiveness of the aforementioned framework with conventional linear interpretation. Using Sompur Mahavihara, Bangladesh, a world heritage site as a case, different treatment models (experiment platforms) were developed and offered to two pre-divided groups. Following each experiment, end-users' responses were collected through a semi-structured questionnaire. Collected data were then analysed to evaluate the changes on end-users' interpretation level, and to justify the relative effectiveness of the interpretive process as well. Standard procedures from descriptive statistics with simple inferential techniques were used for quantitative data analysis, while self-reported narratives were examined through thematic content analysis.

With empirical evidence, this research demonstrates that the presented interpretive framework resulted in a higher level of interpretation of digital heritage among end-users as compared to the conventional linear method. Hence, this research justifies the hypothesis, and reveals 'digital heritage interpretation' as a process to present or communicate with end-users. An interpretive framework for digital heritage consisting of fifteen considerations under four aspects, therefore, summarizes the outcome of this research.


Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture
Department of Architecture
National University of Singapore