Digital Extension of the Museum of Marseilles – Towards a Global Museum built both in the real and the digital world

Alain Dupuy, InnoVision, France


The Museum of History of Marseilles, France, relates astoundingly to a city founded 26 centuries ago by ancient Greek from Phocaea, which is now the second town in France. Moreover, and even more astoundingly, remains of the main entrance of the city, created then, with towers, walls and path, have been found just right in the center of today’s town, when a mall was planned to be erected there, and foundations made, back in the late sixties. That’s for the museum. Now let’s turn to high tech and to web and mobile application: because the city of Marseilles was built there by the ancient Greeks, and then rebuilt right there by the ancient Romans, after the conquest of Jules Cesar, and then rebuilt again over the years of the Middle Age, there is a lot to show, which isn’t visible, just there in the center of the town. This is the role of the Augmented Reality technique of the mobile application specially tailored for that museum. This application is geolocalized, and it uses the gyroscopic built-in device of most smartphones. It works in the open area of the museum and along the “historic path” which always has been the main street of the town, over centuries. People face the today’s reality of the place, and they are shown how it was at the ancient Greek time, at the ancient Roman time, and at the Middle Age time, with 3D interactive models of these periods, and many hotspots leading to appropriate comments of scientific peoples and experts of the place and its history. Of course, a Web platform helps people to prepare their own visits, either inside the museum, or in the antique area, or along the historical path (as the web platform connects to the mobile application). This feature is open to everybody, but school teachers have their own space to prepare their class’ visits and caht with other, and contribute to the visits data base. As a matter of fact, this is nothing else than a new generation of Global Museum, built both in the real and in the digital world.

Keywords: Mobile Application, Augmented Reality, Web platform to prepare one's visit, Global museum, both real and digital museum

The Museum of History of Marseilles, France, tells the astounding story of a city founded 26 centuries ago by ancient Greeks from Phocaea, and which is now the second largest town in France.

Moreover, and even more astoundingly, remains of the original main entrance of the city with towers, walls and path were found right in the center of today’s town, when a mall was planned to be erected there, and foundations laid, back in the late 1960s.

Findings included evidence of buildings as well as objects like amphorae and ships. One of the ships, shown in the museum, is as old as the city itself, and was made by those who created the town, or their children, with the ancient technique of sewing pieces of wood together.

That’s for the museum.
Now let’s turn to high tech and to Web and to Mobile Application concepts…

The Mobile Application

There is a lot to tell, because the city of Marseilles was built there by the ancient Greeks, and then rebuilt in the same place by the ancient Romans after the conquest of Julius Caesar, and then transformed again and again over the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modern times and still today. We are speaking of cultural heritage remains of great historical and symbolical value, which are either still visible, or only partially visible, or not visible at all. One can walk down the street just in front of the museum and not realize that this street indeed was the main path of the town 26 centuries ago, as well as the “Decumanus” (main Est-West path) of the Roman period…

This is a perfect case where Augmented Reality is the best tool to show right there what was there before and how it relates to what you see now. This is exactly the concept the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles is based on.

But this paper isn’t a show and tell about the project. The intent is much more to share what challenges we faced, the options that we chose, what worked very well and what needed adaptations after early evaluations in the fields.

First of all, and most importantly, Augmented Reality is only a tool. This is obvious, but there is no harm to say it, and repeat it. The words Digital and Augmented Reality, like a few others relating to new technologies, are too often wrongly meant as solutions, when they are only tools. The difference is noticeable: you may just apply a solution. But you are bound to think of how you are to use a tool. We therefore (obviously) had to face the scary moment of the blank page when you have to evaluate the options, and make decisions…

Our first decision was to give a prominent importance to “reality.” People using the mobile Digital Extension of the museum are expected to be right there in Marseilles, visiting the area in the open air, generally on a sunny day. We were not to develop an application which would permanently focus their attention on the screen of their mobile device.

This led us 1) to consider giving priority to audio to convey an important part of the historical content of the application rather than video, and 2) to prevent ourselves from needlessly recreating a 3D-model of the existing reality.

Furthermore, we did aim to position ourselves for the future, at time when Augmented Reality will be just a tool among a lot of other tools. We thought that at that future time one will be less enthusiastic about aiming a smartphone or a tablet at a target like a carved stone, a statue or a building to trigger an overlapping “augmentation” of the reality. We preferred to restrict ourselves (if this is in any way a restriction) to the use of a) geo-positioning, b) the compass and c) the gyroscope, with no attempt to shape visual recognition (e.g. building shapes).

At this point, we had another decision to make regarding how to show people where they are and where to go and discover the various Points of Interest along the historical path. We preferred a 3D symbolic model to a 2D interactive map to achieve this. One reason is that what comes next for the user is most of the time a 3D experience, which requires the use of the same type of (3D) tools that enable people trace their routes on digital maps. The second reason is that people will love looking at where they are from a bird’s view on demand, which in turn will make them more comfortable at looking at themselves within the model, meaning in the reality of the town and its historical path. The third reason, a quite important one, is that such a symbolic 3D model allows us to insert a location-based hotspot that can trigger audio content.

The outlines of the application began to take shape: the interface (could we say the “hyper menu”?) is a 3D model symbolically derived from reality, in which audio hotspots are inserted as well as signs showing where the various historical Points of Interest are located.

The symbolic nature of the 3D interface is important in many ways. Obviously, it matches our wish to avoid creating a “real” model of the reality when it’s right there in front of people. But more importantly the symbolic aspect helps to draw the attention of the user to only what’s relevant along the historical path. Hence we included more detailed shapes for the Points of Interest (e.g. an historical building) or what’s around the Points of Interests.

That’s the starting point. Entering the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles is actually entering within a symbolic 3D model of the area covered by this application, and realizing where you are (from the “you are here” type of pictogram representing you, or from your recognizing the symbolic shapes of the model that fit the real shapes you are looking around you), and understanding immediately where to go as shown by the signs that indicate the location of the Points of Interest. From now on you are on your own. But the geo-localized and gyroscope-and-compass activated symbolic 3D model follows you all the time wherever you are, letting you absolutely free to decide where you wish to go next.

Then, when you walk along the historical path, your “you are here” pictogram moves along the symbolic 3D model. Ultimately, this pictogram hits a Point of Interest sign (a red circle) meaning that you indeed reached another place where you can literally unlock historical and emotional content about it.

We of course strongly focused on the emotional aspect of the content. This was another ambition of ours: not to build just another mobile application of the “dictionary” type (the type of application which delivers everything you should know on the spot you reached somewhat like a dictionary does). In order to fulfill this ambition, we spend a lot of time understanding each Point of Interest, listening to no fewer than 45 scientists, archaeologists or historians as well as to the project manager of the museum. It was a pleasure to spend such a huge amount of time with them all. Not a single Point of Interest was included in the application unless some “historical emotion” could be linked to it.

Furthermore, upon a legitimate request from and in close coordination with the museum, we paid a particular attention to connect as often as possible objects that are shown inside the museum with the Points of Interest covered by the Digital Extension of the museum, hence connecting inside to outside as well as outside to what’s in the museum through artifacts or Augmented Reality along the historical path outside.

Let’s take an example. The Jules Verne square was transformed as an underground parking lot topped by a ground level terrace decorated with olive trees in giant pots designed by an artist. This is what people see when they reach this Point of Interest. The fact is that when the area was dug to establish the foundation of the parking lot, they found ruins at various levels, beginning with Medieval remains, through Roman and finally Greek. The most profound and most ancient finds were those of a ship (named JV9 and mentioned earlier) that was built sometime between 550 and 600 BC using the ancient technique of sewing parts with organic thread. These finds, a rare artifact of great value, are shown in the museum. One can see clearly the sewing technique. There are still some threads attached. Here is the emotion, from the scenic standpoint. Here is what will enhance people capacity to realize the importance of what they are looking at. Suddenly there is series of links between the very founders of Marseilles, or at least their descendants, according to the dating of the remains, and those who discovered these remains 20 years ago, with the remains in the museum, and the threads of the sewing technique. Suddenly, one can imagine the founders of the town, or their children, working with their hands. Can we say that developing a mobile digital application needs some ingredients like the elements of a screenplay, a typical need in any audiovisual production? At the very least we may say that new technology in general and Augmented Reality in particular are of no help if unaccompanied by real historical and emotional stories.

But remember, we just reached the Jules Verne square with its olive trees in artistic pots decoration, our Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles in our hands. Nothing else. And sure, people walking on this square can’t imagine anything about the ancient remains and the link to the founders of the town. But as we approached the area, the sign telling us that there was a Point of Interest became bigger and opened itself to release a popup menu proposing an introductory short movie, and a 3D experience. The movie shows TV news from when archeologists found the remains: they are interviewed then, and they are interviewed again now, 20 years after, and they transmit with their emotion all the keys for the user of the Digital Extension to realize and understand what this is all about. Then comes the 3D experience. You can easily imagine what it is: a 3D model of the archaeological excavation, locked to the exact position of today’s square and surrounding buildings as well as the exact position of the finds, including the JV9 boat mentioned above. Moreover, audio hotspots within the 3D model are like tags attached to specific artifacts, which trigger more detailed audio content. The audio is activated in any order and only if wished, leaving people to select content at will and only on demand, with no major loss if a content is skipped, leaving only a feeling that one indeed may have to come back.

Another decision of ours, and not the least important, as measured by its consequences (be cautious on this one) was to build a historically authentic application. In one sense this is an obvious and almost mandatory ambition to have when authoring and developing any application tagged with the name of an organization devoted to history. But what happened is that we couldn’t determine the right level of accuracy to aim for. We had been drifting, by pleasure as well as by obligation, towards a really precise accuracy which wasn’t at all anticipated. You may imagine how technically innovating while immersing yourself in an amazing period of history may make you lose touch with reality. But there is something else, which was unexpected and worthwhile to share. Building a 3D model about archaeology and historic periods isn’t like telling a true and authentic history story. When writing a story, you relate everything accurately, and you don’t mention what’s unknown. But when you develop an historical 3D model of a place, you can’t leave untold any piece of it unless you accept (and we didn’t) “empty holes” in the model – they wouldn’t be understood by the users. As an example, a significant amount of time was spent on the height of the defensive Greek towers at the entrance of the town. We had a reasonable number of excavation plans and a lot of explanations given by the archaeologists concerned, but very few indications of how high these towers were in the Greek period. That’s not surprising. Archaeologists when excavating are much more concerned with recording the exact location of each find (on a valuable 2D plan) than extrapolating the supposed elevation of these remains. But we had to know, and to ask. Another unexpected situation came during the modeling process when we began to get and to show completed scenes to the historians and archaeologists. None of them had an idea of how their findings, reported in 2D plans, looked in a 3D model. Hence a series of constructive (but unexpectedly time-consuming) meetings followed, leading to remarks and iterative modifications in order to reach the ultimate consensus, which was our objective. Nonetheless, this way we ended up with an extremely valuable application that satisfies the scientific and academic community and yet is also quite attractive to the “visitors” of the Digital Extension of the museum.

The emotion along the historical path covered by the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles doesn’t only relate to the ancient times or to the Medieval period. It also relates to the Modern period and to our Contemporary times. Let’s take for example the Point of Interest which relates to the area of the destruction of the old districts of Marseilles during World War II in 1943. Hundreds of houses were then dynamited and the entire district was erased at ounce. Today’s visitors along the history trail may notice that rather old types of houses are sit along one side of the street, whereas the entire area on the other side is occupied by buildings obviously made in the 1950s. As the visitor approaches this Point of Interest, the related sign opens to release a pop up menu offering an introductory movie and a 3D experience. The movie shows some photographs and archival footage of the destruction of the district, as well as a few witnesses that we were able to interview right on the spot. The 3D experience is locked on exactly the same spot. It shows the unimaginable desolation of this part of the town, which wasn’t really so long ago. You can imagine the emotion when one is immerged in today’s reality with people and kids innocently playing there and at the same time immerged in the 3D model of the destroyed area through the museum’s digital application. Again this is nothing other than authentic story telling, connecting documents and artifacts from the museum. But it’s right there on the actual spot where the history happened, and no longer an object or a document or a movie in a museum. The Digital Extensions brings them outside the museum’s walls and repositions them right in their original context, so that the reality is specially “augmented” (isn’t it?) to convey the precise curator’s information.

Farther on the historical path there is a slightly different typology of Points of Interest. From a sort of balcony, one may have a look at the beautiful sight of the old port of Marseilles and may recognize some major monuments at a distance in the urban landscape, for example Saint-Victor church or the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. There is a lot to tell and to show about these “distant” Points of Interest, and the mobile Digital Extension of the museum had to deal with these monuments without requiring people to actually go there on the other bank of the port and even father. For achieving this, we linked these distant Point of Interest to the place where people could best see them in the urban landscape. When people reach this place, the Point of Interest Sign opens to release a pop-up menu, as usual, but this menu leads to a symbolic 3D evocation of the urban landscape with audio hotspots where the relevant monuments are located. Moreover, the menu also offers related short movies made from relevant historians, scientists and curators.

All of the above mainly relates to the History Trail. Let’s now have a more precise look at the Archaeological Site which is located just at the entrance of the museum. This is a rather complex archaeological site as its visible remains belong to various periods of the History of Marseilles, from as far in the past as 26 centuries ago. There are remains from the Greek, Roman and Medieval periods. These remains are rather close to each other. Some of them, obviously from a temple of the Greek period are “re-used” a few centuries later by the Romans for the construction of the new piers along the far end of the old port creek. The remains were obviously too close and too numerous to set each of them as a Point of Interest. Moreover remains that are at a distance from each other may as well be part of the same ancient building (e.g. defensive wall), so it made no sense to deal with them separately. On the other hand, the emotional story of the site is clearly global: in the Greek period this is a place with a defensive gate and funeral terraces, and the far end of the natural creek where water from rainfalls flows to the sea; in the Roman period this is a place with still a defensive gate to the town, but with the creek now equipped as a port, and a water reservoir nearby in order to load pure water on boats, and a path paved in the Roman way; in the Medieval period this is a place with a lot of artisans working iron, potteries or making use of water to work leather fabrics.

We choose to set up a symbolic 3D model with audio hotspots for this archaeological site to “explain” the place to visitors. People may walk freely on the real site and have the 3D model display change accordingly. They may turn around 360° at any time and see where the audio hotspots are, meaning something of interest could be listen to (as recorded from numerous interviews of historians, archaeologists and curators). But as there are a lot of remains on the site we ended up with far too many audio hot spots in the 3D model. As a result, we had to set up a kind of a hierarchy: only the most important audio spots are displayed in the 3D models at first, and one may observe new hotspots appearing on the same location only after listening to the introductory audio.

Then one may switch to the 3D immersive experiences. In addition to the didactic symbolic 3D model with audio hotspots, the general menu for the archaeological site enables users to enter the 3D models of a) the Greek period, b) the Roman period or c) the Medieval period. One can then walk through the site again and observe the area as it was in the selected period, bearing in mind what they heard just before through the audio spots of the didactic 3D model.

The 3D immersive experiences obviously rely on the location-based, gyroscopic and compass-driven 3D display. The smartphone or the tablet screen becomes a kind of “magic window” that opens to other universes of ancient times. But the immersion isn’t only a matter of instant images of the 3D model: we thought that spatial audio within the 3D model could be a valuable bonus for the visitor’s experience, and it sure is, when one suddenly hear horses on the paved Roman path, or the sounds of working artisans in their workshops nearby at the Middle Ages. In order to achieve this, we had with us a sound design team specialized in reconstructions of sounds relating to various periods of the past. They also worked in close relation with the museum team and with specialists of ancient Greek and Roman languages, as well as in languages spoken in the area through the Middle Ages.

The Website

Now let’s turn to how the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles works in relation to the Web Site that we created to enhance and manage its use.

First of all, any single data of the Digital Extension can be managed by the museum staff itself through the Back Office specially designed for that purpose. Any change, any update will be live on the user’s devices in a matter of seconds or minutes. That’s common. But we had the ambition (or the dream, which isn’t that different) to allow visitors to interact with the application from their home (or their school) prior to coming on the spot, and later on, after coming back from the site. Hence the specific Web Site with a “personal account” (free of charge) feature, and a “prepare your visit” tab. Of course people can review their visit online using the interactive 3D model derived from the symbolic 3D model of the mobile application itself. But people (including teachers) may as well select in advance which Points of Interest they wish to visit. When they are at the actual locations, the application displays in active red the selected Point of Interest, whereas the other Points of Interest remain grey (and not displayed at all for a teacher and related school students so that they concentrate only on the academic subject of the day). We also anticipate that teachers would love to present each Point of Interest from their selection with an audio or video file recorded by them during their own visit. This is possible through the website, after teachers register and demonstrate their academic status. Once at the site, people (teachers as well as other visitors) may take photographs and may select documents, or images, or movies that are available from the Digital Extension application, in order to find them ready for use when back at home or at school.

A rough summary of the essential components of the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseille includes:

  • 3D models of the history trail for orientation and organization of one’s visit
  • Didactic 3D models of the archaeological site
  • 3D models for the Greek period of the history trail as well as the Archaeological site, in addition to 3D models for the Roman and Medieval periods
  • Introductory and explanatory audio files made from interviews of more than 45 historians, archaeologists or specialists (totalizing more than 400 audio files)
  • Video files edited from the filming of these interviews at the very locations the experts are speaking about (totaling more than 130 files)
  • Spatial sound files for the 3D Greek, Roman and Medieval models, made by a sound design team in collaboration with related researchers (totaling hundreds of files)

Measuring Success

Now the important question to answer is: how successful is this Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles?

Obviously there is a high level of ambition from the museum itself (exemplary and digital were the key words) probably amplified by our own creative and technical ambitions (let’s think of what will be in the future and how to get there) encouraged by the ambition of the city of Marseilles to rank high in the use of high tech devices to enhance the richness of its cultural heritage experiences, and also encouraged by project sponsor, namely the Société des Eaux de Marseille, who are eager to support high tech developments in the city. Obviously a significant amount of effort was made both by the museum team and by our own team in terms of authoring and conceiving the cultural content, the scripting and the logistical aspects of the application as well as the audiovisual production and the development of the mobile application and the related website. The result of all this is fantastic, no doubt about it; to tell the entire truth, however, we had to face what we may call the “innovative syndrome”. I personally experienced such a syndrome some decades ago, at a time when the innovation was touch screens (so long ago, wasn’t it?). The fact is that people were so hesitant to touch the screens in the exhibition for the first time that I had to post a big sign saying “please touch the screen”. Later on, in the last decade, I created a gesture-driven interactive installation in the French Pavilion at the International Fair in Zaragoza, Spain. And as you can imagine, I had to post a big sign telling people “please, don’t touch the screen, just make gestures”. I am afraid of experiencing the same syndrome for the third time with the Digital Extension in Marseilles. Immersing oneself in a 3D model, moving around 360°, walking from one Point of Interest to the other and selecting information here and there isn’t (yet) a common and standard behavior. We are in some way victims of our own futuristic vision, and probably too far away from that future for people to discover by themselves only what a powerful instrument they have in their hands. I am not saying people are short-sighted, but that (of course!) one should help users of an innovative device much more than those of a standard one. This is also to share the fact that (of course again!) the more innovative your application is, the more you need evaluations and detailed analysis of real experiences in the field.

From our point of view this Digital Extension of the Museum of Marseilles, whatsoever its richness and success, is only a part of what we may call a “Global Museum”, built equally in the real architectural world and in the digital world. The big change came almost unobserved a few years ago when web tools developed so well that they could easily handle complex interactive installations, including those connected to external devices through serial interfaces. For that reason, nowadays any kind of multimedia installation can be developed using only web tools, instead of locally installed tools like audiovisual players. This is a big change, since you can now organize the overall multimedia installation in the museum as a series of clients connected to a web server. Just by switching from old type audiovisual players to a web server architecture, you allow the installation to make use of all the most recent (and future) developments in the Web market. You allow instantly the museum’s multimedia system to access (according to planned controllers) any link on the web, to connect to any social network, to trace people within the museum from one interactive screen to the other (anonymously or through pseudonyms), to let people prepare for their visits prior to coming in and find any document relating to their visit later when back. By installing in the museum a Web oriented multimedia system, you allow developments for the multimedia of the museum to be compatible with mobile applications inside the museum, or outside, as a Digital Extension of the museum. In order to really achieve the implementation of a Global Museum, you also have to “recognize” people at the entrance of the museum, through the ticketing service, and to retrieve not only the payment and reservation data relating to these people, but also the data files resulting from their preparation of their visit.

The result is a complete connection of all the devices that are common to many museums but not yet fully connected permanently and in real time, including:

  • The multimedia installation of the museum, developed globally as a web-based architecture;
  • Allowing for controlled links to selected websites or other global museums;
  • Allowing for controlled connections to social network;
  • The mobile applications within the museum;
  • The mobile Digital Extension of the museum linking people, artifacts and the museum from outside the museum;
  • The ticketing system, which links people with their related data when entering the museum.

The development of the Digital Extension of the Museum of History of Marseilles is in any case a rather large part of this global concept and a noticeable step forward towards the new type of museum that we professionals and researchers may expect in the future. We are currently discussing this global concept with other organizations, including in the Middle East for possible implementation. Meanwhile, we are looking forward to getting as many comments you may have on our experience, and sharing more experiences with you in future about Digital Extensions and the concept of Global museums and implementations.

Archaeologic Site, Roman 3D model - today's view versus immersion into the 3D model 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Archaeologic Site, Roman 3D model – today’s view versus immersion into the 3D model

Archaeologic Site - Greek and Roman 3D models - Antique entrance gate and path 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Archaeologic Site – Greek and Roman 3D models – Ancient entrance gate and path

Historic Path - Symbolic 3D model with Point of Interest signs 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> History trail – 3D model with Point of Interest signs

Historic path - Middle Age 3D model - Accoule Church 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> History trail – Medieval period 3D model – Accoule Church

Historic path - 3D models of remains excavation - Jules Verne square 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> History trail – 3D models of the excavation – Jules Verne square

Historical path - 3D model of the destruction of the old district - 1943 World War II 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> History trail – 3D model of the destruction of the old district – 1943 World War II

Toward a Global Museum concept - A museum built equally in the real architectural world and in the digital world 400w, 960w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Toward a Global Museum concept – A museum built equally in the real architectural world and in the digital world


City of Marseilles
Office of the Mayor
Information System Department (DSI)
Web Management Department (DINC)

Museum of History of Marseilles
Laurent Vedrine, Director
Xavier Corre, Project Manager

Societe des Eaux de Marseille
Cultural sponsor

Application production:

Planning, authoring and digital scenography, Alain Dupuy, InnoVision, Paris
Assistants Frederique Bertrand, Jean-Marie Gassend
Audiovisual production, Jacques Hubinet, Les Films du Soleil, Marseilles
Mobile application and related Web Site development, Xavier Boissarie, Orbe

Cite as:
. "Digital Extension of the Museum of Marseilles – Towards a Global Museum built both in the real and the digital world." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published January 31, 2014. Consulted .

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