How to Use Digital Tools in the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage

9 june, 2024

In 2019, before COVID-19 captured everyone's attention, the world was shocked by the news of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris. This iconic cultural landmark was severely damaged. One of the buzzworthy pieces of news at the time was that the company Ubisoft, famous for the Assassin's Creed game series, offered aid in the restoration of the building. Ubisoft had scanned the Notre Dame building in order to recreate it in the virtual environment of the game and had all the data that might be helpful for conservators. However, this statement made more for Ubisoft's PR than for the cathedral, as the 3D version in the game was not as precise as needed for the restoration¹.

3D scans of Notre Dame, 2014-2021, Art Graphique & Patrimoine, source: https://artgp.fr/references/notre-dame/
When we discuss tools for digital preservation, we are referring to technologies utilized across various industries, including conservation, entertainment, and surveillance.  The Ubisoft team did not necessarily make a bad scan of Notre Dame; they made it with the objective of creating a realistic yet entertaining experience for their customers. The key distinction lies in the purpose for which these technologies are employed. The question is: what exactly are we seeking to preserve? Whether it's the physical structure of a building or object, the way people engage with it, knowledge related to it, cultural significance and symbolism, or the tactile experience it offers, each aspect of preserving a heritage site or object necessitates distinct preservation strategies and therefore costs and efforts to do so.

After all, the entertainment industry and literature play equally important roles in preserving Notre Dame as science and heritage policies do. The former has sustained the idea that this cathedral is of the utmost importance and allowed people from around the world to form a personal connection with the site, whether through Victor Hugo's novel, opera, movies, art, or video games. Each of these mediums captured something special about the cathedral. The same logic applies to almost any cultural heritage entity. So, what can we capture with the current digital preservation tools? Short answer: almost everything.

The most recent and comprehensive methods of 3D scanning and digitization are not kept secret and can be found in academic papers, publications, and reports online. However, just having knowledge about the best way to digitally preserve heritage does not guarantee that it can be implemented. It's not just about the cost of producing a full scan of a cathedral in Ukraine; digitizing heritage is an intricate process that goes beyond the initial cost of equipment and expertise. Who will be able to work with the complex data produced to the highest standard? Who will have access to the necessary labs, equipment, knowledge, and motivation to utilize such a scan? There will definitely be a few researchers with the resources to do this, but we are talking about an extremely limited number of people.

Let's simplify this mental experiment and imagine that we are creating a digital model of a cathedral in Ukraine, but with the intention of making it accessible to a wider audience: researchers from a range of disciplines not specifically trained to work with complicated datasets, those interested in heritage and history, and the general public. The question now is not only how to make such a model precise, but also engaging. After all, the preservation of heritage is primarily for the benefit of everyone, not just scholars who are concerned with important but niche and specific details.

Immersive engagement is more important in this case. Replicating affective experience in the digital form is a challenge compared to simply capturing its structural and physical details. The data about the density of the stones used in building Notre Dame, no matter how precise and perfect, doesn't provide much meaningful information on its own. What matters is the embodied experience of being inside or near this grand building—that's what's important and valuable. Such intangible qualities and nuances transform an object into a cherished cultural entity.
One example of a project that tried to create an immersive digital model of a heritage site is the web tour about the genocide in Rwanda created by photojournalist Martin Edström. The tour allows users to see the church at Nyamata, a site of mass atrocities in the past and one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country now. Among other things, it utilizes soundscapes in the experience and gives visitors hints on what to look at and why. Partly, the success of this project is due to its personal, subjective component, emphasizing elements that were important or emotionally resonant to the author.
Rwanda: A Scene from the Genocide, 2014, Martin Edström, source: https://web.tours/rwanda-genocide/
Rwanda: A Scene from the Genocide, 2014, Martin Edström, source: https://web.tours/rwanda-genocide/
Apart from being an example of great digital storytelling and a format of preservation, I want to use the Rwanda example to bring up questions of ownership and digital decay. In 2014, Edström’s project was featured in The Guardian and got its resonance. The article is still available, but the 3D tour embedded in it is inaccessible. The tour is currently hosted on a platform belonging to Martin Edström’s company, which provides tour creation services similar to the one made about Rwanda. This means that the tour could disappear if the company decides to shut down the tours or makes a mistake. The version shared by the Guardian is already inaccessible after 10 years. Technology changes quickly, and data is as vulnerable as the actual site, exposed to environmental and mechanical agents of deterioration such as weather conditions, influx of tourists, and possible vandalism.

The network of knowledge created by this web tour is far more sustainable. We know that the tour received media coverage and scholarly interest, as it was referenced in academic articles and analyzed in various contexts². It is possible to find even more examples of how the web tour served as a resource for the production of different forms of knowledge and, therefore, the preservation of what the Nyamata church represents.

An example of a more experimental digital archive, though not related to war but to catastrophe, is the Fukushima Texture Pack. As the name suggests, it is a digital collection of textures found in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Now, these textures are available for creators worldwide to use for any purpose. The downside of keeping the archive open is the possibility that the pack might be used for unethical projects. This doesn't mean the project itself is inherently unethical. As Professor Marisa Franz argues, “rather than an aestheticization of disaster itself or of the Zones as post-apocalyptic pastoral, these works haunt us with the ordinary affect of human habitation in what are now exclusion zones and mourn the loss of a familiar and everyday place of home.”³ Replicating this idea for the creation of, say, a war texture pack will increase the ethical risks because the war in Ukraine affected millions of people and remains a traumatizing experience. However, the partial commercialization of memory is inevitable, and even now, there are 3D models of burial sites in Izum, destroyed libraries in Chernihiv, and piles of burned cars from the times of Irpin occupation available for download on the Scetchfab platform under the tag “Ukraine.”
Fukushima Texture Pack, 2016, Eva & Franco Mattes, source: https://0100101110101101.org/fukushima-texture-pack/
Fukushima Texture Pack, 2016, Eva & Franco Mattes, source: https://0100101110101101.org/fukushima-texture-pack/
Izum: Mass Burials 3D Model, 2022, Skeiron and Howard G. Buffett Foundation, source: https://skfb.ly/oUEny
There is a growing number of digital preservation projects in Ukraine, catering to local audiences, professionals, the international community, and commercial interests. For instance, The War up Close Project, which is backed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, is led by professional videographers. Its goal is to document the damage caused by the Russian invasion, including historic buildings. In contrast, the Polycam encourages people to 3D scan and upload the models into the open cloud for free just by using their mobile devices. In this crowdsourced archive, one can find all sorts of digitized sites and objects, which, on their own, are great materials for analysis and reflection. In all the cases mentioned, a for-profit company is behind digitalization, offering its resources, expertise, and platform for preserving heritage while promoting its own services. Nothing is wrong with this scenario except that the maintenance of the data is at the owner's discretion.
The War Up Close Project (Kharkiv), 2022-2024, Jam Digital, source: https://war.city/tours/kharkiv/
The War Up Close Project (Kharkiv), 2022-2024, Jam Digital, source: https://war.city/tours/kharkiv/
The War Up Close Project (Kharkiv. Scientific Library of KNTUA), 2022-2024, Jam Digital, source: https://war.city/tours/kharkiv/
The War Up Close Project (Chernihiv Regional Universal Scientific Library named after V. G. Korolenko), 2022-2024, Jam Digital, source: https://war.city/tours/chernihiv/
The ownership question when it comes to digital preservation is trickier than it may seem at first glance. For example, a server provider might charge a fee to download files that you “own,” or the problem might be that a server is physically located in another country with different regulations around copyright, ownership, open access, fair use, etc. There might be different strategies how to tackle this issue, one of which is baking up the information with tools like the Internet Archive or more targeted initiatives like a project called SUCHO that, among other things, offers cloud storage for Ukrainian art institutions and independent scholars to back up their archives. They state, “The goal is not to create an archive of Ukrainian culture that can be studied safely in the West; we want to return this data to Ukrainian cultural heritage organizations in Ukraine when they are in a position to rebuild.”
Backup Ukraine Project, 2022-2024, Polycam, source: https://poly.cam/capture/64EF66B7-1046-40D8-8501-A96F3762D175
The tools for digital preservation might be innovative or basic. The point is that digital entities decay, if not faster than physical counterparts, and are equally vulnerable. What helps to counteract this doomed scenario is the circulation of knowledge and cross-referencing. Digitization itself is not a one-and-done initiative but rather yet another practice of preserving and caring for cultural heritage. When a 3D model of a church is mentioned in academic articles or, better, is used to build a certain argument, it is a part of the reinterpretation and reflection on the past – it is preserved. When a digital twin of a cultural object appears in games, movies, or novels – it is preserved. The more appearances, mentions, and interpretations a certain object has, the more chances it will survive in some form, as a physical object, digital model, verbal description, cultural phenomenon, or even myth. Yet, the growing number of sporadic initiatives to 3D scan Ukrainian cultural heritage on its own guarantee nothing unless it is woven into a broader cultural discourse on a spectrum from entertainment to academic contexts.

The article was prepared thanks to the support of the Fachbereich Kultur und Geschichte des Bezirksamtes Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Lost Cause series of articles was developed in a framework of the project LOST CAUSE: A Series of Events Exploring Future Perspectives for Preserving Cultural Heritage that was held at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum Berlin.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-47963835

[2] For example: Bentley, Michelle. “Experiencing Rwanda: Understanding Mass Atrocity at Nyamata.” Virtual Dark Tourism, edited by Kathryn N. McDaniel, Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 183–204.

[3] Franz, Marisa Karyl. “Ordinary Hauntings in Irradiated Land.” Apocalyptica, Jan. 2024.

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