April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Cultural Heritage on the (Geographical) Map

Leila Liberge and Job Gerlings,, The Netherlands

Abstract is a recently-released national platform for historical-geographical information in the Netherlands. This joint initiative of over 25 cultural heritage institutions provides the general public with easy access to historical data with a location component. caters for the broad interest in local history that was reconfirmed by recent research conducted by the Dutch government (Wubs, 2006a, Wubs, 2006b and Huysmans, 2007). This research concluded that the main interest of the general public regarding cultural heritage on-line focuses on family history and local history.

The adventure of developing this simple, smart, fast and fun map-based publication platform started early in 2005. At that time Google Maps and Google Earth were still to be launched, and map-based applications were ‘for professionals’.

Topics addressed are the application itself; focus points in the development process; the unique features of the application: the combination of the elements of time and space; the content; the users; policy goals; first results; and future plans.

Keywords: national project, publication platform, institutional collaboration, GIS, geographical-historical information


Figure 1

Fig 1: Logo is the first map-based publication platform for historical information on a national level in the Netherlands, and very possibly in the world.

Development of the platform started early in 2005. Map-based on-line publication platform user interfaces were still in their infancy at this time. Google Earth and Google Maps were still to be launched, and map-based publication platforms unlocking larger or complex data collections were still predominantly based on the design of Geographic Information System (GIS) desktop software.

The Key Issues

  • GIS desktop applications enable users to generate maps based on mathematically determined queries. Translated to the Web, this results in user interfaces with a map based on several variables chosen by the user. Making the selection of variables needed to generate a map often requires knowledge in advance and is regarded as demotivating, to say the least.
  • Since maps shown are created upon consumer demand, they are mainly generated live (on the fly). This often results in map-based platforms which are extremely slow, according to current Web standards.
  • To navigate the map or access information on items on the map, several tools are needed. These tools are generally positioned next to the map. Getting users even to notice these tools, let alone work with them, is known to be a key usability issue to be tackled.
  • The user experience of such user interfaces is usually described as: "a Web site for professionals". Dutch examples of such map-based Web sites are (offering a view of the Netherlands in the future based on present construction plans), and (offering policy makers in-depth possibilities to visualize cultural heritage on the map). Since they both target a professional audience, the above-noted usability issues play less important roles.

Figure 2

Fig 2:

Figure 3

Fig 3:

The task of the (WWW) team, however, was to design a map-based platform targeted at the general public, so these usability issues needed to be addressed.

Making A Web GIS Simple, Smart, Fast And Fun

Luckily the WWW team did not have to start from scratch. Since had a map-based predecessor, (no longer on-line), the team could build upon previous experience. To tackle the known usability issues while focusing on simplicity, smartness, speed and fun was key during the design and development process. Owing to the large number of participants in the project and the aim of enlarging public access to cultural heritage, findability, accessibility and interoperability also played important roles.


The simplicity of the user interface was envisioned by providing the user with maps based on predetermined queries instead of offering user-generated maps based on a broad number of variables to be selected. In order to determine these queries, location, time, persons, objects and events were chosen as key elements in the search for cultural heritage or historical data. Since the WWW platform was developed to publish geographical-historical data, location and time were taken as focus points. Persons, objects and events were marked as linking elements. Apart from location and time, category typology (image, audio, text, map, etc) and the source-holding institute were also determined as focus points in order to ensure a readable and traceable output.

This made it possible to choose a map-based interface offering a total overview of all data available in the system (maps and objects on the map) from the start. In order to decrease search results, filtering the results was made possible on the basis of location, time, type of data and source-holding institute. Apart from the fact that it is possible to publish point and shape data side by side, the time-filter deserves extra attention; this is what sets apart from most on-line map-based publication platforms such as Google Maps. The time-filter on this map-based platform enables the users to browse through geographical-historical data in more than the one-dimensional manner these data require, through TIME and SPACE. The time-filter enables users to filter data such as images, maps and air views by location and time, offering them the possibility of acquiring an overview of the development of the landscape.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Screenshot of filters on


Smart interaction on the platform was achieved by learning a lot from Google Maps but also by moving beyond them. Since the system would contain at least one or more items of data per parcel, the use of icons to indicate data on the map was seen as problematic. The use of icons in information-dense, map-based publication systems often results in the map’s vanishing behind the icons. To prevent this, a new feature was introduced. This feature consists of refreshing the list of search results shown next to the map on mouseover when scrolling over the map. This, and some other changes, made it possible to do away with the navigation and information tools positioned next to the map, as well as the use of icons on the map.

Figure 5

Fig 5: Screenshot of live-generated search results on mouseover on


The speed of the WWW application is mainly secured by caching (storing) the tiles of whatever maps in the Web-based GIS systems are used. The rendering of the tiles starts fully automatically at the highest zoom level every time new material is published. In addition, all maps that are not pre-rendered are rendered upon user request and cached for the next user. This results in a platform which is actually made faster by frequent usage, although this is of course within certain limits.

Figure 6
Fig 6: Pointer of


The fun part of the platform is provided by the playful and light design of the logo and user interface, which contrasts nicely with data often qualified as ‘serious’. In addition, the flexibility of the logo concept enables a cross-media communication strategy of which only a fraction has been put into practice as yet. Part of the logo concept is the choice of the name. ‘WatWasWaar’ has a double meaning. Literally it means ‘What Was Where?’ But it can also be read as ‘What Was True?’ - indicating that history can be coloured.

Movie 1: Introduction movie of [8.6MB QuickTime .mov file]

Figure 7

Fig 7: Possible off-site use of pointer.


Just as the usability of the application determines its success, the content it discloses is key to attracting visitors. was fortunate that, during the creation of its predecessor, twenty pilot projects had been carried out exploring the possibilities of linking historical data to location. This resulted in WWW’s being able to claim nationwide coverage of every location when launched.

Highlights of the current collection include:

  • The first national cadastral map and cadastral administration of the Netherlands dating from 1832. This fully scanned collection consists of more than 17,000 particle maps and 155,000 related pages with parcel information such as volume, value, usage and information on owners of land.

figure 8

Fig 8: A regional map from the Dutch cadastral map of 1832

Figure 9

Fig 9: A detailed map from the Dutch cadastral map of 1832

Figure 10

Fig 10: A page from the Dutch cadastral administration of 1832

  • A digital version of parts of the cadastral map of 1832, enabling users to view live the development of the landscape from 1832 till now.

Figure 11

Fig 11: Screenshot of digital cadastral map of Leeuwarden, 1832 on

Figure 12

Fig 12: Screenshot of the topographical map of Leeuwarden, 2004 on

  • Beautiful and extremely detailed military maps dating from 1840–1861.

Figure 13

Fig 13: Military map of the city of Amsterdam, 1840–1861 on, source: National Archive of the Netherlands

  • Aerial views by The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Air Force (USAF) dating from the Second World War.

Figure 14

Fig 14: Aerial view of fields in the Netherlands by the RAF dated 1944 on, source: Kadaster (Dutch Land Registry Office)

  • Several local historical image databases such as the one for Veere, a small fortified town in the province of Zeeland.

Figure 15

Fig 15: Historical postcard of the town of Veere on, source: Zeeuws Archief, The Netherlands.

In order to facilitate and stimulate the growth of content as much as possible, WWW has taken into account that location-based publication of historical data is new to most collection-holding institutes. To facilitate and stimulate participation and thus the growth of the collection, WWW offers:

  • advice on location metadata management
  • assistance with linking collections items to locations
  • location-based files (tables with matching x/y coordinates, postal codes, addresses)
  • a simple, expandable and flexible data model

WWW has kept the required METADATA to a minimum and made the metadata model flexible and expandable.

Minimum metadata required for publication on WWW are:

  • location (can be x/y coordinates, postal code, address or town)
  • time (exact date or start and end dates)
  • descriptions (in the form of a title and/or full description)
  • source holder
  • type of material (geographical point or shape data, images, moving images or text)
  • More metadata categories can be added on demand.

Users Of

Users of can be divided into two main groups: consumers and participants.


On-line consumers with an interest in geographical-historical information were clearly identified, characterised and grouped in research conducted by the Dutch government (Wubs, 2006b). In this research consumers and potential consumers for WWW are described as those members of the Dutch public with an interest or potential interest in their personal history, i.e. their family history or the history of their local environment. This group consists of 42% of the Dutch population. The total population of Holland is more than 16 million people, so this results in 6.7 million consumers or potential consumers in the national market. This group of consumers can be divided into three sub-categories: semi-professionals (A), starters among the historical explorers (B) and people with a potential historical interest (C). Groups A and B consist of 13% of the population (2.1 million people). Group C consists of 28% of the population (4.6 million people). The interests of the groups are as following:

  A B C
Existing (activated) historical interest:      
House XX XX XX
Family XX XX XX
Living environment XX XX XX
Birth XX X  
Marriage XX X  
Building a house/settling down XX XX XX
Hobby/study XX X  
Leisure X XX XX
Facts, details, knowledge data X XX XX

Table 1: Overview of interests of consumer groups of

In practice this means that the interest in cultural heritage (family and location) starts around the age of 30 when people start to settle down, buy a house and/or have children. Interest peaks around the age 55. In general, interest is greater among males and/or those with a high level of education.

The additional value of WWW for consumers was defined as:

  • offering one central point of access to historical data from different providers
  • offering data from different providers within relation to each other (location)
  • publishing geographical-historical data in a logical, attractive and easily accessible manner (map-based)
  • providing national coverage.

Target numbers for WWW are:

  • 100,000 unique visitors a month after two years
  • 200,000 visits per month after two years
  • 2 sessions on average per person after two years
  • brand awareness of 20% (1.4 million people know the name) after two years

These target numbers are partly based on actual Web site statistics of several cultural heritage sites.

March 2007 Visits Unique Visitors Sessions
per visitor 276,068 74,375 3.7x 15,747 10,774 1.5x (royal library) 216,160 145,029 1.5x 65,356 47,446 1.4x 155,000 118,000 1.3x

Table 2: Web statistics of various Dutch cultural heritage Web sites in March 2007 and were taken as the most vital indicators for determining targets because offers historical information on locations and persons. is the largest search engine for genealogical data, indicating the popularity of a Web site catering to family history interests. was a first attempt to publish historical data in map-based form. Targets were as follows.

The target numbers for WWW are seen as realistic because relatively little effort is put into marketing and, so an increase in visitors is to be expected with an active marketing strategy. Making pages of the new platform robot-traceable (think Google of Yahoo) to a deep level was seen as an option for increased findability and thus higher visitor statistics.

In order to reach the targets, a communication strategy was developed of which the following elements are vital:

  • actively increasing public reach by:
    • launching WWW as a public event on Cultural Heritage Day
    • presenting WWW at events visited by the target audience such as the 50+ beurs (national over-50s fair) and the Woonbeurs (national home and household fair)
    • media coverage
  • continuously adding new content through:
    • acquisition of new content participants
    • broadening the partnership with current participants
  • continuous improvement of the user interface and adding new features and services


The participants can be divided into two groups:

  • prosumers (consumers contributing content)
  • participants (cultural heritage institutions contributing content).

The development of consists of several stages. The first stage was to get the map-based publication platform up and running and then provide it with content; in the following stages more services and products can be added. Public participation, and thus catering for prosumers, is seen as an extra service to be developed in the future.

Potential participants are all institutions with relevant collections. In practice these are often archives, museums and libraries.

Current participants are the National Archive, and all regional archives, the Dutch Land Registry Office and archives and/or museums of larger cities and smaller regions. An up-to-date overview of participants can be found on Whilst some participants themselves apply to participate, WWW also actively approaches organisations and requests them to participate, and also seeks funding to generate content.

WWW offers participants:

  • access to the map-based publication platform dedicated to historical data and targeted at the general public
  • the possibility of publishing geographical point and shape data next to traditional data such as images (including moving images), text and maps.
  • advice and support when dealing with collections with a location component

The additional value for participants consists of:

  • an extra window on their collection
  • a rise in the number of on-line consumers of their collection
  • exposure of their institute on a national platform
  • publicity for their collection in national WWW publicity campaigns and actions
  • simultaneous publication of their collection on other map-based platforms such as or Google Earth, in addition to WWW
  • the possibility of co-operation not open to small or single parties such as:
    • a permanent WWW icon in the Google Earth toolbar indicating the layer dedicated to WWW content (negotiation phase)
    • collaboration with real estate Web sites (currently being researched)
    • cross-media spin-offs such as cultural heritage GPS tours (currently being researched)

Organisation And General Policy Goals

A small team takes care of the policy-making and carries out the daily tasks at WWW. This team operates under the juridical form of a foundation. Participants can take a seat on the board advising the WWW team. The board meets six times a year. Participants are also consulted during the two annual meetings organised specially for participants.

WWW is financed by the Dutch State through the Department of Education, Culture and Science (Ministerie van Onderwijs Cultuur en Wetenschap). Under the current financial structure, participants also contribute financially in the form of an annual fee (variable according to the size of the participating institute).

In 2009, a new financial structure will be introduced. This is currently under debate. WWW is striving towards financial independence for the permanent costs and the abolition of participants’ fees.

The funding of a map-based publication platform for geographical-historical data by the state is not an isolated initiative. The development of WWW is part of broader vision developed by the Dutch government to stimulate the public reach of cultural heritage.

This plan consists of the digitalisation of several key collections under the care of Dutch cultural heritage institutes. The first cadastral map of The Netherlands is considered one of these collections. The development of several national on-line publishing platforms to make these digital collections easily accessible is another part of this plan. In addition to WWW, the portal is an example of such a platform. The next step is to interlink these platforms. The technology to reach this goal may be provided by search and annotation software, presented at Museums and the Web 2007 (Ossenbruggen et al., 2007).

First Results

WWW was launched in September 2007. The results of the first four months have been very positive. The following tables show a significant increase in unique visitors, and visits have been completed. But the numbers also indicate that more action is still needed to reach the targets set.

  Unique Visitors % of numbers of former platform
Launch WWW 8 September 40,496 369%
Oct-07 25,498 212%
Nov-07 18,075 154%
Dec-07 30,588 212%
Jan-08 34,440 269%
Average 29,819 243%

Table 3: Overview unique visitors of WWW based on Web statistics. Note: a unique visitor is a visitor not registered in the last 24 hours

  Total Visits % of numbers of former platform
Launch WWW 8 September 89,091 679%
Oct-07 56,096 383%
Nov-07 39,765 266%
Dec-07 67,294 383%
Jan-08 65,436 190%
Average 63,536 380%

Table 4: Overview of visits a month on based on Web statistics

To give more insight on the statistical results of, the following table gives an overview of the average monthly results of WWW and based on that, estimated yearly results. Next to that the table shows what this would mean in other national contexts based on population size.

  Population Size Av. Nr. Unique Visitors a Month Total Unique visitors a Year Av. Nr. Visits a Month Total Visits a Year
The Netherlands / WWW 16,570.613 29,819 357.833 63.536 762.437
Canada 33,390.141 60,087 721.041 128.027 1.536.327
France 60,876.136 109,549 1.314.585 233.416 2.800.995
United Kingdom 60,776.238 109,369 1.312.428 233.033 2.796.399
United States of America 301,139.947 541,912 6.502.943 1.154.655 13.855.865

Table 5: Average statistic results of placed in an international context

Future Plans

In order to meet the targets set, WWW will focus on three areas:

  • Further development of the application
  • More content
  • Publicity

Further Applications

Since WWW contains not only historical data with location components but also data with information on private persons, the data in WWW are also of great interest to genealogists. Because of the huge existing interest in such data, making the data accessible by full text search will be one of the first new features to be introduced.

Other products and services on the WWW list are:

  • A widget for participants to indicate participation in WWW on their own site.
  • The introduction of for a more personalised experience, offering an overview of last search orders, recent search results, and an overview of related content on other locations on the Web.
  • The projection of scanned images and maps in the map-based interface, creating the opportunity to walk through this material alongside the digital maps.
  • The extension of the on-site map to a full-screen version on top of which the menus will be placed, as for game interfaces.

Content Development

The growth of content will be stimulated by:

  • Acquisition of new participants and collections.
  • Interlinking WWW with platforms such as and, and the exchange of content.
  • Offering an API to create map-based mash-ups on the basis of the WWW map to make participation even more worthwhile.
  • The introduction of a geo metadata standard, use of which is required in government-funded digitising projects. In addition, the placement of government-funded digitised data in WWW will be mandatory.


Publicity will be generated by:

  • Communicating the introduction of new collections and services.
  • Adding famous collections such as the maps of Willem Blaeu.
  • Adding fun collections such as an overview of haystacks and ship wrecks.
  • Adding theme-based collections, linked, for example, to the Second World War or to slavery.


Huysmans, F. and J. de Haan (2007). Het bereik van het verleden, Den Haag, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau., 11.02.2008.

Ossenbruggen, J., et al., Searching and Annotating Virtual Heritage Collections with Semantic-Web Techniques. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2007 at

Wubs, H. and F. Huysmans (2006)a. Klik naar het verleden, Den Haag, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau., 11.02.2008.

Wubs, H. and F. Huysmans (2006)b. Snuffelen en Graven, Den Haag, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau., 11.02.2008.

Cite as:

Liberge, L., and J. Gerlings, Cultural Heritage on the (Geographical) Map, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted