The Virtual Cities Project


Over the last decade, 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 softwares 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. We worked on such issues in a previous project that gave birth to a research platform – Virtual Shanghai – through which we 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 more than a geographical extension of the original digital research platform. It provides a new step forward in terms of platform design and methodological approach.

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 for 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 first 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 scholarly digital space for the study of cities, both past and present, and make accessible resources as well as new research to the scholarly community, students, and the general public. It is a space we hope to open to new projects related primarily to cities in East Asia (although we are prepared to welcome projects on non-Asian cities). As web 2.0 scholarly projects, the individual platforms are open to external contributions, but only under the control of the direct participants. Yet various opportunities are -- and will be -- opened for anyone to make use of and contribute to the resources of the Virtual Cities Project.

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; Institut Universitaire de France

List of cities

Last update on Tuesday 17 May 2016 (19:54) by  C. Henriot

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