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The Roman Heritage, Goddesses and Vampires that encourage large scale cooperation in the Western Balkans

28 January 2022

Who would have thought that the legends, fairy tales, and a largely unexplored yet common heritage will reappear from the ages, back from the dead, in an immersive and genuinely unique experience and the intimacy of your home?

And all of this not because of a magic spell or witchcraft, but thanks to the technology applied by one of our most innovative and hi-tech grantees, the Digi.ba from Sarajevo.

Thanks to their work, the Roman Gods and Goddesses are reborn in 3D, have a voice, and speak in English or local languages. Virtual googles and headsets recreate many locations of Roman Civilisation in the region, including sites that sadly don’t exist anymore. And the guide to drive you through the story is not a local guide of the museum, but Minerva, the Goddess wisdom.

The storytelling of Minerva is much more than a simple animated guide. In the 3D re-enactment of the objects and everyday life under the Roman Empire, the Goddess gives important facts gathered by a team of archaeologists and historians and every day and simple truths of this lost civilisation, like in an accurate and entertaining conversation, while walking next to you.

The WBF grants have funded the digitalisation of 8 sites in two different Call for Proposals.

Vila and terme in Ilidza near Sarajevo, Roman Military Camp and city Viminacium near Pozarevac, Municipium Settlement near Pljevlja, Durres Amphitheatre and then, Butrint, Doclear, Mogorjelo and Loderata are all part of this rich and precious collection.

Many are now part of museums, but the Digi.ba work is not finished. We had the pleasure to meet dr. Selma Rizvic, Professor of Computer Graphics and the founder and the pumping heart of Digi.ba projects, gave us a rich interview about the past project and future vision for a region united through its colourful, rich and similar heritage.

Dear Ms Rizvic. How do you come up with the invention of the small, virtual world of the Digi.ba?

The idea started when I got my PhD in computer graphics. Because computer graphics is an extensive area, I focused my research and decided to apply computer graphics to cultural heritage. In Bosnia, the cultural sites are often neglected, not well marked or explained, and that is a pity because we are so rich with culture, so I decided to do something about it. That something is the virtual reconstructions of objects that do not exist anymore, are destroyed or in ruins.

And then we realised that we need an interdisciplinary team for this kind of project. We don’t know enough about history as computer scientists, so we hired historians, archaelogists, writers, actors, filmmakers, and musicians. With this kind of crew, after the first successful projects, we decided to formalise all of that in an organisation, the Digi.ba organisation, registered in 2010. Since then, we have worked on many similar projects. We have established virtual museums, enhancing the current collections digitally.

With the WBF funding, you have been developing two projects on Roman Heritage in the Western Balkans.

Yes, in total, 8 locations because we have been doing this two year in a row. The first year we selected four sites, and then we got another grant from WBF, expanding the number of locations with four more. In total, 8, two per each of the four Contracting Parties where we have been active.

How can the Roman Heritage unite the region of today?

It can be because we were all part of the Roman Empire and the heritage left is common and similar in each of our Contracting Parties. For example, we have been working with archaeologists from all the region dealing with the restoration of those cities. They all know each other. It is a friendly community that doesn’t recognise borders. Roman Empire was something similar to the EU we have today. People travelled freely everywhere, culture mixed, and we ended up with this shared heritage that we are all proud of and should be adequately emphasised.

How do you pick the locations?

We consult the experts for that period, archaeologists and historians, and they select the locations that they believe are the most significant for our project.

Goddess Minerva is very important in your virtual 360 degrees’ 3D re-enactments of Roman sites. Why did you choose her?

Minerva is the Goddess of knowledge. Our scriptwriter said we should have a typical character for all the sites. It is a universal God, so she starts the stories, but we have several more animated characters that narrate. It all depends on locations, and we have a professional writer writing the stories. He is tasked to create characters who will be believable and attractive to the audience.

 

I bet that you have many jokes or funny stories to tell from your work in the region.

Many stories indeed. For example, we got lost in Montenegro, we were travelling to Serbia, and we made a wrong turn and ended up on top of a ski resort in the mountains, in the dark, perilous road. We were driving almost two hours over the ski slopes to the forest to get to the right road and save ourselves finally.

Another time, In Serbia, we were close to a village known to have some Vampire legends. We ended up on some edge of the town and in the dark, the girl from Serbia, our guide, was talking about the vampires, and suddenly a guy jumped out of nowhere in front of our car, and we started to run and scream because we thought for a moment it was the vampire. We have many super funny stories.

What is the added value of your application to the partner museums?

In the museum, you cannot touch exhibits, the interaction is minimal, and on top of that, you have to visit the museum and people who live far or abroad need to spend a lot of money. With our app., it can be downloaded everywhere. It depends on the museums how much content they want to put online. People still need to visit the museum where the virtual headset is located for the whole experience. Still, thanks to the animation, the storytelling, the sounds, the building from the past rising next to him, the actors, and the rest, the exhibits and the story are much more interactive for the users. In the museums where we have worked, our application has actually helped them increase the number of visitors.

Digi.ba has been offering this service to partner museums. Still, maybe the next step can be for your organisation to become a virtual museum, a possible repository of many archaeological sites attractive in the Western Balkans.

It will be nice, but we would need more funding, and for now, we don’t have that kind of amount. We are dealing with cross-border projects. In Montenegro and Bosnia, we are dealing with the digitalisation of the content of two museums. We are also working in Slovenia, where we are reconstructing a mosque destroyed during the Great War. We have another project for the digitalisation of some of the archives of the Soviet Union and more.

How would you rate the cooperation with the Western Balkans Fund?

It was very nice. Maybe we are not a typical WBF project, but you recognised the quality of our work, and it was very nice. The cooperation was very smooth, and we are happy about the most important. Our projects are expensive because of the number of people involved and technology, but we decided to apply again because of that outstanding experience.

Is the funding received enough to make a real impact in the region?

It is excellent because there are a lot of grassroots organisations that cannot possibly reach the considerable funding that, for example, the EU provides. For them, WBF is one of the only choices. By funding the smaller projects and helping many organisations grow, the Western Balkans Fund makes a huge impact towards promoting large-scale cooperation and helping our region grow.