Digital Summer School: Rijeka in Flux

What is a “contested city” and how does one engage its historical layers? Few cities can be described as contested as Rijeka, a metropolis that has been under the Hapsburgs, Italy, Yugoslavia, and finally Croatia. Brigitte Le Normand, an associate professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and project director for Rijeka in Flux, has been working on the smart phone app for the past four years in an effort to enable visitors to and residents of the city “to explore the potential of embodied experience and augmented reality in enabling users to experience the past differently, more richly.” Le Normand discusses Rijeka’s history, the complexity of the app medium, and the role of politics in the project’s creation and development.

Rijeka emerged in the international consciousness after World War I, when it became contested territory at the Versailles Peace Conference. Was this history the inspiration for the project? What is it about the city’s post-World War I history that leant itself for a project of this nature?

You’re right that Rijeka is best known for events that took place in the wake of the First World War—namely, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s flamboyant and short-lived occupation of the city in the name of Italy. It was recently the 100-year anniversary of that event, which certainly stimulated interest in the city. The prolonged history of contestation did inspire this project; although, being a Yugoslav historian, I was more interested in the period at the end of the Second World War, when the partisans reclaimed Rijeka on behalf of Yugoslavia. Rijeka shifted sovereignty multiple times in the twentieth century. It started out as a Habsburg city, followed by the D’Annunzio episode and a brief period of autonomy, then it became an Italian city, occupied by Germany in the Second World War, and finally, a Yugoslav and Croatian city. Each of those transitions was accompanied by population movements as well as the destruction, transformation, and creation of places. It is by definition a multilayered city that resists simple narratives, and that is what made it such a perfect case for this project.

You’ve chosen to create an app for smart phones, which, while not unheard of in the digital humanities, is less common than other projects. Why an app rather than say, a website? What kinds of challenges did this sort of digital format present in comparison?

We chose the app format self-consciously, because we wanted to explore the potential of embodied experience and augmented reality in enabling users to experience the past differently, more richly. Our hypothesis was that encountering the past in this way would encourage users to understand the complexity of the city. The basic building block of the app is the “marker” which is a geolocated pin that you can open to discover a short descriptive text and historic photographs. The contents are available in three languages: English, Croatian, and Italian. There are several ways to encounter the app content, ranging from the highly curated to the un-curated. At one extreme, you can follow our guided tours, each one highlighting landmarks from different periods in the city’s past and, in some cases, different communities. At the other, you can browse through the “markers” according to time period, type (such as industry or public places), or the researcher who created the markers. And finally, you can just look markers up as you encounter them while you move through the city, letting your spatial meanderings determine the story that you create.

We have, in fact, created a web-based map for an earlier project, which was created with the purpose of crowd-sourcing knowledge about Rijeka’s past. The map still exists, and anyone is welcome to contribute to it. Having worked on both web maps and apps, I can confirm that web maps are much easier to work with. Apps are costly and finicky—they depend on a good signal and perform differently on every phone. Anyone thinking of developing an app should think carefully about why they think it’s the best vehicle for their project.

Screenshot of app logo, Rijeka in Flux project.

Since it is an app for smart phones, how does the medium affect the what and how information is conveyed?

Opting for an app created opportunities. For example, the map and augmented reality functions allow you to figure out where you are situated in relation to the marker and to orient yourself. But it also presents certain limitations.

For one, you need to think about how people use their phones. No one likes to read long texts on their phone, so we kept the texts short. This meant that we couldn’t include long transcriptions of oral histories, for example, or provide a tremendous amount of detail. It also limited the kinds of visuals we used; we avoided images of documents, for example, which are less visually compelling but offer a different kind of information about the past.

We also tried to come up with a flow that would be as intuitive as possible, so that technology skeptics would hopefully not give up out of frustration. That meant privileging simplicity over offering too many options for navigating and for accessing alternative content.

Screen shot of map feature, Rijeka in Flux project.

As you went about developing Rijeka in Flux, how did you determine what aspects of the city’s history to highlight? What parameters informed selection?

We compiled two lists of markers: places related to the research agendas of the different members of the Rijeka in Flux research project and an additional list of significant places that people might expect to find on an app like ours. So, for example, we included a number of sites related to the history of multi-lingual education, connected with Vanni D’Alessio’s research, and the history of the port, connected to my own. But we also included important landmarks like the clock tower and the St-Vitus cathedral. We have also invited guest researchers to contribute markers and plan to solicit at least one more batch.

In a contested city like Rijeka, how much did political concerns factor into the project’s development?

Paradoxically, the politicized nature of the city’s history was both a motivator of the project, and a risk. Our aim is to destabilize entrenched nationalist narratives about Rijeka’s past, so in some sense we want to step into the fray. But we are not interested in taking a frontal approach, because polarization is not conducive to persuading people to change their minds. During the production of the app, coinciding with the anniversary of D’Annunzio’s occupation of Rijeka, the right wing in Italy placed the issue of the “Eastern border” back on the agenda. Scholars in Italy who worked on sensitive historical topics were sometimes faced with death threats. Some of our project members were quite anxious that they might be subjected to the same treatment. I tried to channel this apprehension into seeking balance in the app, rather than self-censorship. We walked a fine line between responding to political concerns and protecting the conceptual and scholarly integrity of the app.

Who do you see as the audience for Rijeka in Flux? Have you been able to develop a sense of how folks are using the Rijeka in Flux? Do you have plans to expand it further?

For better or worse, we decided to aim for as broad an audience as possible—locals and tourists, students and older people. During the pandemic, we even noted that the app could be used by armchair tourists (although there seems to be limited demand on that end). By conducting focus groups with high school students, university students, and people in the tourist industry, we have determined that the groups most likely to use an app like this are high school students in a classroom context and tourists. Had we determined this earlier, we might have included more gamification features, which appeal to a younger audience. We were surprised to learn that university students who were local thought the app was well made, but they felt like they already knew the city well, and an app like this would be useful for their out-of-town guests. In retrospect we probably should have done some focus groups at the outset to understand what people look for in an app.

Screenshot of Filodrammatica building, Rijeka in Flux project.

The digital humanities, or at least the idea of them, have been with us for some time now. After working on Rijeka in Flux, and based on interactions with peers working on similar projects, what do you think when you hear the term digital humanities?

As I have delved deeper into this project, I have been amazed by the diversity of things included under the term digital humanities. People who work on corpus linguistics, for example, rarely talk to people who are doing deep mapping. But there is potential for deeper interaction. For example, I am collaborating with colleagues who do network graph analysis to create a conceptual map based on the descriptions used in the app, so that we can map out connections between entities (such as people, places, institutions, etc.) to produce new kinds of visualizations. 

Brigitte Le Normand is the Principal Investigator (project director) of the Rijeka in Flux project, funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She has published research on urban planning in post-war Belgrade, Yugoslav migrant workers in Western Europe, and the development of Yugoslavia’s merchant marine. Her most recent book is Citizens Without Borders: Yugoslavia and its Migrant Workers in Western Europe (University of Toronto Press, 2021).

Featured image (at top): “Old Tram in Rijeka, Croatia” (before 1935), Rijeka City Museum (Muzej grada Rijeke), Wikimedia Commons.

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