Virtual heritage on tour

In Sweden, libraries are at the forefront of opening up the UNESCO heritage listed decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland by using immersive VR and enhanced marketing techniques.


In 2012 the decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland became a UNESCO world heritage site. Seven farms were chosen to represent nearly a thousand farms in the area.  Empty for most of the year, these grand farm buildings were built to celebrate the great feasts of life – birthdays, weddings and funerals. Sometimes parties went on for days and days. The richly decorated farmhouses allowed independent farmers to show off to the . 

Immersive VR allows remote users to visit the farmhouses

The virtual heritage project originally started as a collaboration between the Regional Museum and County Council. The project was expanded with the help of funding from the Swedish Arts Council. A one-year project called Storytech Arena has allowed us to explore more VR-possibilities together with more partners, local businesses and the University of Gävle.

The Virtual Heritage project features a virtual kitchen, recreated from a real kitchen in Bortom Åa, one of the UNESCO-listed decorated farm houses of Hälsingland. This farm house is located in the remote village of Fågelsjö, far from any major cities.  Bortom Åa was chosen by the project as it is one often missed by tourists.

The VR-technology allows you to pay a visit to Fågelsjö regardless of where you are located physically. In this virtual environment you can walk around, study paintings, furniture and interact with most of the objects you can see. This makes it immersive VR rather than an example of a 360 film, which is also sometimes referred to as VR.

Telling stories

We wanted to explore new ways to tell stories and new ways to make these unique buildings more accessible. Is it possible to increase accessibility to these sites by using virtual storytelling? Can we attract new audiences to our World Heritage sites?

The project engaged creators and artists who worked both in the actual ‘real world’ heritage site as well as in the virtual environment.

Technical matters

We use HTC Vive (a virtual reality headset) and the experience is programmed using Unity. The physical room in the museum is created by industry design student Sofie Notstrand. The design and layout of the room is intended to make it a safe space to explore the virtual kitchen even for complete beginners and without any instruction needed from the museum staff. Pictograms and images explain how to behave rather than written language with the intention to minimise the need for translations.

Learning opportunities

The virtual heritage project has been an excellent way to get acquainted with the possibilities and limitations of VR. We were able to try out, test and find a use for VR through this accessible and non-intimidating content. We aim to share our learning and experiences with other libraries to help them work with these kinds of digital tools and to encourage them to plan their own projects and to get their own equipment. 

Many early adopters of new tech have to rely on the content made available by the games industry. As one of the librarians put it: “I doubt that our tech-curious middle-aged visitor is tempted by zombie shooter games”.

We believe that the virtual heritage content highlights the technology’s potential as a tool for communication, storytelling and mis en scène. The project now plans to connect with other VR endeavours linked to world heritage sites around the world. The aim is to be able to visit each other’s sites in VR, make them all more accessible and to increase the knowledge about VR-storytelling.

For the benefit of the libraries in the region, we offer a free package including a computer and HTC Vive. With this package we provide an introduction on how to set up. They can then decide for themselves how best to incorporate this in their library’s activities.

We hope this will be starting point for some or all of them to work with these types of digital tools and to entice them to plan their own projects and to get their own equipment.

Feedback from Hudiksvall Library

During a week in September, Hudiksvall Library offered a VR enabled visit to the Fågelsjö farmhouse.

The initiative attracted a wide range of visitors, young and old. Some visitors had read about it in the newspaper, others found out via social media, or on posters in the library. Some reported they felt dizzy, or that the room was quite dark. One visitor said what a great training tool VR tech would be for professionals such as surgeons. Another idea was that in the future, libraries could offer VR technology connected to Google Earth, enabling virtual visits to other places on earth. Historical sites, difficult to access or simply no longer existing could be (re-)built by VR technology.

Ann Ostman is a Library developer at bibliotek på Region Gävleborg, Sweden. Anna-Karin Ferm is a World Heritage and Culture developer. Josephine Rydberg is a Crossmedia developer.