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2 minutes to read Posted on Friday May 10, 2019

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Editorial Adviser , Europeana Foundation

Joining forces to build a Time Machine - Europeana Foundation and the Time Machine project

This week, Harry Verwayen, Julia Fallon, Antoine Isaac and Victor-Jan Vos from the Europeana Foundation are meeting in Amsterdam with partners from the Time Machine project to discuss time travel. Well, almost.

main image
The Time Machine an invention
H. G. Wells
Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC)

What is going on?

The European Commission is investing one million euros in the preparatory phase of a new project called Time Machine. It is one of the most ambitious research projects in the field of cultural heritage and emerging technology, and brings together over 280 institutions from 33 European countries, and counting. We consider it very complementary to the Europeana ambitions and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it.

What is Time Machine all about?

Here’s the pitch: ‘Time Machine aims to develop the Big Data of the Past, a huge distributed digital information system mapping the European social, cultural and geographical evolution across times. This large-scale digitisation and computing infrastructure will enable Europe to turn its long history, as well as its multilingualism and multiculturalism, into a living social and economic resource.’

In practice, the project is comprised of three interrelated components:

  • Firstly it aims to accelerate the digitisation of cultural heritage using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to, for example, make handwritten texts machine readable. The result of this will be that ‘Big Data from the Past’ that the pitch above hints at. Note that currently only about 22% of our  cultural heritage has been digitised (Report on ENUMERATE Core Survey 4 Report, 2017, p.6). The more cultural heritage data we can digitise, and the more of that data that is open, public and free, the closer we can get to making our Time Machine.

  • Secondly, the project aims to create a (distributed) infrastructure through which that data can be accessed. But data alone is not enough. It will be combined with tools that allow you to interpret and visualise that data in interesting new ways.

  • Thirdly, the project wants to make that infrastructure available to anyone who has a need for it. Think about the trend analyses a digital humanities scholar can perform with all this data, how teachers can make history classes more interesting, how much more insight and depth visitors to our cities can experience.

Sounds familiar? These are some of the challenges that we have been working on at Europeana and which Time Machine can build on. But Time Machine pursues a unique central vision - putting time and space centre stage. This will eventually allow us to create spaces in which you can interpret an environment, over a period of time. Think of a publicly-owned version of Google Earth in which you can slide back in time and explore what your street looked like 10, 20, 100 years before. Think of that wearing augmented reality glasses that allow you to virtually explore the space around you, and you are pretty close to what the project has in mind. That is why cities like Amsterdam, Venice, Budapest and Utrecht are driving forces in the initiative.

A good read into what such a future could look like is this article from Kevin Kelly in Wired Magazine.

So, what does the Europeana Foundation have to do with Time Machine?

With a pretty big ambition of its own - to transform the world with culture - the Europeana Foundation is a driver of the open culture movement in Europe, operating with a strong ethic of innovation and collaboration. In our role as operator of the Europeana Initiative, we have worked with the European Commission, the Member States, the Europeana Aggregators’ Forum and the Europeana Network Association to develop building blocks (think data model standards, rights statements frameworks, ways to think about impact and ethics, etc.) that enable Time Machine to become a reality.

Vice versa, we are hoping that we and our network will benefit from the research and innovation that will come out of Time Machine. We are always looking at what’s on the horizon - the potential uses and challenges of emerging technologies such as 3D, big data, artificial intelligence. What do they mean for digital culture right now and how do we harness their transformative potential for the future? Time Machine offers us the opportunity to explore these questions.

Harry Verwayen, Europeana Foundation Executive Director, who last night participated in a panel discussion entitled ‘Virtual travels through space and time: the Time Machine project’, says: ‘Europeana exists because the European Union made a bold decision - that the digital future of Europe’s cultural heritage was too important to leave to market forces (and commercial enterprises) alone. Empowering our cultural institutions to develop capacity in the fields of AI and machine learning is critical for the future of the public space.’

Follow the Time Machine project

Keep up to date with Time Machine at, on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.