He studies images and their symbolic significance, and how images from the past affect our contemporary view of history. Jonathan Westin is a cultural heritage expert who researches visual presentations, most recently in computer games.
Jonathan Westin is carrying out a research study of images and symbols in the computer game Assassin’s Creed, which revolves around using the “Animus” machine to show the genetic memories of the characters’ ancestors. He looks at how various historic cities are represented in the game, and how these cities are constructed so that players can navigate them and understand where they are.
“Computer game creators have to strike a balance between expert knowledge of the cities and a kind of general knowledge of the same locations. These images have to meet somewhere so that players know where they are.”
FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN the programmers first modelled Paris and Notre Dame in 1790, players didn’t recognise the location. The cathedral was based on how it actually looked at the time, but the image was too realistic and when players did not see the iconic spires they associate with Notre Dame, they failed to realise that they were in Paris.
“So we had to add buildings that weren’t built until the 1800s. Only then could players identify the cathedral as Notre Dame and – by extension – their position in the simulation of Paris.”
Notre Dame thereby became less authentic but more recognisable. At the same time, players’ image of history became less accurate.
“But the same is true of illustrations in history books. All media make simplifications.”
IMAGES HAVE TO BE simplified in order to be communicated, and certain conventions have arisen over the decades and centuries.
“Just like carrying out a traditional image analysis, digital simulations of historic periods in computer games can also be analysed to see what is included in general knowledge. Which monuments are included in the game’s version of Rome, for example, and does this correlate with the monuments that are given prominence in guidebooks and those that are prioritised in maintenance plans and preserved for the future? Simulations are often a reflection of real conditions.”
Images can be placed in a time period according to their symbols. There are certain symbols that we look for in order to identify the period in question.
“If a historical image depicts good weather, it is more likely to portray antiquity than the Middle Ages. This is based on a misapprehension that the Middle Ages were a dark period. However, more recent research suggests that this was a rich time when knowledge flourished in society.”
HISTORICAL IMAGES ARE rarely entirely accurate, tending instead to be interpretations of reality.
“During certain periods of antiquity, for example, there was a strong link between the external and the internal, and the upper classes were then often portrayed as both good and attractive.”
Colours in images are highly significant as markers of time. Jonathan, who is also an illustrator, has experimented with depicting antiquity in the brown hues associated with the Middle Ages.
“Otherwise, the ancient times are always depicted in light images. Rulers and monuments are often over-dimensioned, while slaves may be small and under-dimensioned. The Middle Ages tend to be portrayed in dark colours and trades are frequently depicted – something that is often lacking in images of antiquity. In the images I’ve created, I’ve taken those conditions that are only based on conventions and turned them on their heads. The resulting impression has been completely different.”