The Virtual Cities Project


Over the last two decades, scholars have become increasingly aware of the potential of digital technologies for research in the humanities and social sciences. The amazing range of resources and software available combined to the increasing speed of the Internet is turning Vannevar Bush's "As we may think" (1945) into an almost tangible reality.

The present portal has emerged from a concern about the use and application of visual and spatial data in historical research, more specifically in urban history. The initial impulse came from the creation of the first digital research platform – Virtual Shanghai – that addressed such issues. The platform was conceived, designed and created by Christian Henriot (Aix-Marseille University) in 2006 with the collaboration and support of Gérald Foliot who developed the code — webActors — that supports the original platform. With Virtual Shanghai, I collected resources, built new tools, and produced research that aimed at combining the various types of sources in the elaboration of historical narratives. The Virtual Cities Project represents much more than just a geographical extension of the original digital research platform. It means to provide a generic model of digital platform that enables new steps in terms of platform design and methodological approach for the study of cities. Yet the schema of the platform can be tailored to any sort of research topic with an emphasis on visual and spatial data.

The Virtual Cities Project places a particular emphasis on the notion of spatial history. It is an approach that initially differed from historical geography perceived excessively focused on landscape and its transformation. Spatial history  also emerged before the emergence of GIS and the drastic renewal of methods that eventually made such a distinction fade away. On the one hand, historians have begun to invest the new technology in which they find a way to process (or re-process) data that was previously beyond their reach. Historical geographers have also naturally turned to GIS as a major instrument of their pursuits. The “spatial turn” in the humanities and the use of common tools, especially GIS, has led to fruitful methodological debates about the implications and difficulties of fitting historical data into GIS grids, about the ways in which datasets and projects can communicate with each other, about the costs/risks of investing in such time- and money-consuming constructions. In other words, technological innovation has brought together scholars in the humanities to reconsider their methods and to explore ways in which their discipline could connect.

Visuality constitutes another central aspect of the Virtual Cities Project. Visuality became a dominant mode not just with modernity, but since then it has been an ever more important theme in scientific discourse. Increasing possibilities for the technical reproduction both of text and image caused this dominant mode to develop. Seeing images is modernity’s everyday experience. Within the pictorial media, photography and film have contributed enormously to shape our understanding of history. The widespread and increasingly rapid circulation of images gave birth to new patterns considering what to see, how to see, how to be seen and where to be seen. The global movement towards the visual and the ensuing reshaping of perception, as well as the role of technological innovations, new mass markets for visual products and the development of a modern global language regarding the content and message contained within these visual images, have become key research issues. The social norms and cultural imperatives of seeing and being seen may differ from time to time, from place to place, but to investigate them and their place in historical communication is illuminating and important. Thus to view history, from the point of view of the images, means to question established historical paradigms and methodologies.

The Virtual Cities Project is designed to provide a digital space for the study of cities, both past and present, and to make accessible resources as well as new research to the scholarly community, students, and the general public. It is a platform I hope to open to new projects related primarily to cities in East Asia (although we are prepared to welcome projects on non-Asian cities). From the beginning, Virtual Shanghai and the various virtual cities now in existence have relied on the TGIR Huma-num (originally TGE Adonis) that offers to the French national scholarly community a remarkable, reliable, and efficient digital infrastructure for research.

The contributors to the Virtual Cities Project  believe in the value and virtue of sharing scholarship and research tools for the benefit of scholars, students, and citizens at large.


Christian Henriot (安克強), Institut de Recherches Asiatiques, Aix-Marseille University

List of cities

Last update on Wednesday 30 November 2022 (09:48) by  C. Henriot

© 2012 IAO - Projet Director: Dorothée Rihal
Site created by Gérald Foliot - Hosted by TGIR HUMA-NUM
The site is part of the Virtual Cities Project: Beijing - Hankou - Saigon - Shanghai - Suzhou - Tianjin - Wenzhou - Zhejiang

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