3D Thinking

Jie Liu, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, offers a starting point for conversation about ways in which to locate sites for collaboration via “3D thinking.” 

The project Victoria’s Lost Pavilion is truly a great example to show the promise of Henry Jenkins’s convergence culture. While Jenkins has a particular focus on fan culture in his book, this project aiming to digitally reconstruct an intriguing historical building (Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace garden pavilion (1842-1928)) is probably what some scholars are excited to see and illustrates how far we can go. Such a project does not only depend on collective intelligence, but also touches on a critical question about digital humanities, namely, how scholars can participate. It seems that to turn digital 3D representation into interpretation and knowledge production requires more than a fundamental understanding of technology; it also asks for a different mindset, which I venture to call “3D thinking” from an English major’s perspective. While close reading and individual projects remain important, an additional dimension demands more attention in this digital age. Scholarship now needs a different type of collaboration and interaction.

First, Victoria’s Lost Pavilions progress shows that in terms of digital reconstructions of the past, a nexus connecting different discourses effectively serves for scholars to participate. In “Beyond the Big Tent,” Patrick Svensson views the digital humanities as “a meeting place, innovation hub, and trading zone,” which is based on “interdisciplinary work and deep collaboration.” Such a model, he believes, can “attract individuals both inside and outside the tent.” His endeavor to revise the theoretical frame is undoubtedly significant. However, Alan Liu also sees the challenges digital scholars face and shares his experience of “working… at the seams between exsiting literary fields, periods, personnel levels, management structures, and so on” in “Digital Humanities and Academic Change” (24).

The digital humanities may not exist as an ideal space where scholars meet and trade ideas; instead Liu finds seeds in various projects faculty and students can work on together. In other words, to be practical, digital scholars may need to locate particular sites where they are able to collaborate. It can be a small project at first and gradually grows into a meeting place inviting more individuals to come. Then we can see the Pavilion project interestingly demonstrates how to work at a seam and develop it into a trading zone that attracts scholars from different areas.

Because of the pavilion’s own complexity, its digital reconstruction becomes an important intersection of disciplines (e.g. literature, architecture, archaeology, art, and computer science), and this convergence supports multiplicity and shared interests, laying a solid foundation for interdisciplinary collaboration. As Professor Fyfe mentions, “the conversation came to include several more participants in the department and across campus, each of whom saw opportunities to engage different field conversations and disciplinary problems.” (“Is this a DH project?”) Hence, finding a nexus and turning it into a trading zone is a critical step digital scholars need to consider, which requires thinking from the perspectives of other disciplines.

Moreover, the Pavilion project urges us to rethink the process of collaboration. “For me, this has valuably complicated my naive thinking about projects beyond the spectrum of proposal -> process -> product.” (Fyfe “Elegant Scaffolding”) Here collaboration itself involves active interrogation, competing interpretations, contested assumptions, and further exploration. Conversations between scholars from different disciplines can raise more questions and open new possibilities. In a certain sense, the dynamic of collaboration reveals a way of knowledge production. Diane Favro also tends to see digital reconstruction as a process, not simply a final product: “the real value of historical simulations lies not in the representations themselves, but in the process of their creation and in the subsequent experiments now possible to be conducted within the simulated environments” (276). (Hence archiving also plays a key role and requires a new model.)

As the process itself becomes more important in a digital context, collaboration can be productive even before a digital reconstruction is finished. Therefore, apart from a new model for a digital reconstruction, digital scholars also need to create a different model for their collaboration, which foregrounds knowledge production in the process and effectively communicates the new knowledge to the academia. (Considering that some projects may not last long because of limited time and funding, such a model appears to be more important.) Recognizing this new challenge, Professor Fyfe comes with an interesting scaffolding theory. “Projects can equally possess a ‘elegant scaffolding’ to deliver useful structures throughout their life cycle” (“Elegant Scaffolding”). Even “a half-built virtual model of a historical building” (“Elegant Scaffolding”) may give us valuable lessons; this is another thing we need to think about differently.

But designing a new model for a digital reconstruction is not that simple either, because of the emphasis on interaction. It seems that from the beginning the purpose is twofold. Digital collaborators do not only need to investigate the veracity of a digital representation and agree on a particular edition of a historical simulation, but also have to take into account of its users’ participation, playing “the role of choreographer” (Favro 274). Projects like Victoria’s Lost Pavilion and Virtual Paul Cross Project aim to create “a more immersive experience of gallery space” (Fyfe “What Victoria Saw”), which do not rely primarily on sight but become more polysensory. This hopefully will inspire visitors to examine historical environments in different ways and lead to new, insightful discoveries. However, it seems that a user’s experience is not the only form of interaction digital collaborators need to worry about. If we see the model for a digital reconstruction as a research platform, other possibilities also emerge. While a digital reconstruction as a nexus is complicated enough itself, its extensibility remains an important aspect. Can it be easily repurposed for other digital projects? For instance, “a well-made 3-D model can be ported to an acoustical program for a study of the relationship between the architectural design and music performances” (Favro 275). Is there a platform to help digital scholars trade and transform such models? Though different software programs and copyright issues already muddy the water, when building a particular model, digital collaborators may still need to think about the circulation of their digital reconstruction and its future possible uses.

On the other hand, a digital reconstruction as a platform may also lead to more research methods, especially for English majors. For example, while Franco Moretti’s maps and diagrams look interesting, his distant reading can be time-consuming and impractical to those who are not familiar with geography and relevant technologies. However, suppose we have a digital reconstruction of Old London (or just a part of it), visitors do not only obtain a deeper understanding of the historical buildings and the structure of the city, but also find an easier way to observe a novel’s characters’ interaction and movement in such a space and possibly produce more maps (or more than maps). In this sense, digital representations also set the stage for 3D reading and new, exciting ways to analyze literary texts. The possibilities are definitely there.


Favro, Diane. “Se non èvero, èben trovato (If Not True, It Is Well Conceived): Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71.3 (Sep. 2012): 273-77.

Fyfe, Paul. “Is this a DH project?,” “Elegant Scaffolding,” and “What Victoria Saw.” The Pavilion project blog.

Liu, Alan. “Digital Humanities and Academic Change.” ELN 47.1 (Spring 2009): 17-35.

Svensson, Patrick. “Beyond the Big Tent.” Matthew Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2013 open-access edition.


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