The Panorama was the most popular picture-going entertainment in the 19th Century. An extremely large canvas depicting a broad scene embraced the spectators in a circular rotunda, producing one of the earliest illusions of ‘virtual reality.’ Although this was mainly a 19th century mass-culture phenomenon spread across the great European cities, the Panorama was later resumed, anachronistically, in the 20th century World Fairs, namely in the Colonial Exhibitions, as a powerful means of persuasion and propaganda. The pilot CONGO-VR will study and re-interpret one of these late panoramas, probably the most forgotten and overlooked Belgian colonial media heritage item: the Panorama of Congo. A recall icon of the violent imperialist policies perpetrated in the former Belgian colony of Congo (1885-1960), the Panorama of Congo, by Paul Mathieu and Alfred Bastien, was dismantled and rolled up after the two colonial exhibitions where it was displayed (Gent, 1913; Brussels, 1935), and fell into oblivion for about 100 years. This giant ‘skeleton in the closet’, measuring 14mx115m, remains inaccessible and unphotographed until today. CONGO-VR aims to bring this media heritage into the ongoing debates on the decolonization of museum collections. By photographing and re-curating this image with archival and artistic research in a Virtual Reality environment, CONGO-VR will prepare this heritage for future generations and critical engagement by different stakeholders, seeking multi-faceted and polyphone narratives of Europe’s colonial past. Positioned in the cross-section of media archaeology, artistic research and post-colonial studies, this project is structured with seven tasks included in three different Work Packages:
- WP1: Panorama Reproduction & Making-of Documentary (tasks 1 & 2)
- WP2: Archive and VR Artistic Research (tasks 3, 4 & 5)
- WP3: VR and Dissemination (tasks 6 & 7)
CONGO-VR will draw on a great photographic venture (task 1) undertaken with the support of the War Heritage Institute (access and manipulation of the Panorama) and will be the basis for making a pilot´s documentary, whilst at the same time producing small video essays where artistic research will be put into practice, which will cover the different ‘decolonisation tasks’ herein envisaged (see task 2). The second pillar of this project will be the archive research (task 3) focused on the Panorama of Congo exhibitions, Belgian propaganda films, international reports, press news, literature, photographs taken by missionaries and colonial politics. This research will provide documentation to the VR artistic research (task 4), which is meant to bring new gazes over this image and create new images, sounds, or virtual objects — intended as new layers of meaning. These will be developed in collaboration with Congolese and European artists. Lastly, as it is not our goal to simply re-enact this panorama, we plan to confront its original narrative (its official visual story) with a critical counter-narrative (task 6).
A pilot for a larger project
This project has in mind a bigger picture. The study of the still existing and the disappeared panoramas has allowed the creation in 2012 of the International Panorama Council (IPC), a non-government and not-for-profit association of panorama specialists ‘committed to supporting the heritage and conservation of the few existing panoramas’ (see https://panoramacouncil.org). The IPC created and manages a database of panoramas and related art forms, which presents the ‘worldwide family of panoramas’. It is our goal to test with this pilot a VR platform where all the panoramas included in the IPC database could be displayed and re-experienced in an immersive environment, alongside the corresponding metadata and contextual framework. This larger project, to be implemented in partnership with the IPC and the institutional owners of these panoramas, would allow such historical immersive media to be analysed and compared in an immersive apparatus similar to the one they were originally designed for, and no longer only studied from their flat digitised images. This Panorama Heritage VR Platform would give back the ‘apparatus’ and the immersive experience to all panoramas which lost their buildings and could never be ‘revisited’ again. On the other hand, it would allow immersive media to be explored and researched by digital humanities, visually cross-referenced with other kinds of images and catalogued with their coeval visual cultures.