The virtual, the real and public history

Posted on July 04, 2023

On the 19 of June, the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (DHHS) hosted a seminar entitled: “Virtual Reality and Digital History: South Africa World War One” in UP’s Digital Capability Lab. The seminar introduced a major public history project launched in the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in November 2022. “South Africa World War One” (SAWWO) is a virtual reality (VR) experience, heritage tour app and educational resource that reinvents historic commemoration for the digital age.

The project outcome is the result of a collaborative project led by Prof. Stefan Manz from Aston University, a research associate in the DHHS, Dr Anne Samson from the Great War in Africa Association, Paul Long, Creative Director of MBD Ltd. and the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. The two VR episodes are centred on emotive and immersive storytelling to drive public engagements with historical narratives for the digital age and transport participants in time and space. Uniquely, these stories are the product of historical and archival research that adds academic rigour and accuracy to the representations. Additionally, great care was taken to make the virtual experiences a uniquely South African story, expanding this history’s narrative beyond the Western Front to a more inclusive and transformed history.

Participants in the seminar had the chance to view the two VR episodes and reflect on this way of doing history, heritage, and tourism, which presents many opportunities for future engagement. Naturally, like any academic seminar, it was not without its critical questions and discussion. Discussions centred on the opportunities and potential pitfalls of VR as a tool for historical representation, the demographics of engagement, the curation of narratives, the practicalities of VR production and public engagement with history in the midst of a potentially distracting technology. Although the need to adapt to a new generation and new technology is clear, great care must be taken in the rigour and curation behind such innovations.

You can watch the seminar here:


- Author Hannes Engelbrecht

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