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Heritage as a Platform: New Frontiers in Cultural Preservation

March 4, 2016

A few weeks ago on this site I reviewed John Robb’s book Brave New War, discussing the potential of reconfiguring heritage preservation from a top-down, hierarchical model into a participatory, two-way, resilient and distributed platform. In many places around the world these kinds of projects are already being created, using technologies such as high-tech scanners, photogrammetry, 3D printing and immersive virtual reality to ensure that heritage is never lost.


3D printed model of King Uthal of Hatra. Morehshin Allahyari, “Material Speculation: ISIS,” Image courtesy of the artist, 2016.

From December 9, 2015 to February 5, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted an exhibit titled The Missing: Rebuilding the Past curated by professors Erin Thompson and Thalia Vrachopoulos. Among the projects on display was Nimrud Rising, an effort by the company Learning Sites and its president Donald Sanders to reconstruct the Northwest Palace of Nimrud which was destroyed by ISIS this past April. A 3D rendered video can be seen here, and the project also features an immersive 3D experience where visitors can strap on a virtual reality headset and then walk around the palace.

At the symposium associated with the exhibit, Sanders noted the technology could be expanded to create 3D models of archaeological sites as they currently exist, not just reconstructions as they were, thereby preserving a virtual copy that while it can never replicate the original can nevertheless preserve some aspect of what it was like to be there.

Iranian-born new media artist Morehshin Allahyari has made further attempts at reconstruction by building 3D models of artifacts from the Mosul Museum and then 3D printing them in resin as part of a series titled “Material Speculation.” The models are on a much smaller scale – Allahyari said she would not make any 1:1 scale replicas unless they would stand exactly where the originals once stood in the Mosul Museum – but each model contains a removable USB drive which is loaded with images and publications about the original artifact.

Allahyari has recently begun releasing her work on the website Rhizome, allowing others to download limitless copies of her digital models and print them worldwide, thereby ensuring that ISIS will never be able to remove the memory of these artifacts from the earth. The project, therefore, is not only a form of documentation but a form of artistic resistance to ISIS’ attempted erasure of Middle Eastern cultures.

Small 10cm copy of Morehshin Allahyari's King Uthal model which I had printed at Columbia University Science and Engineering Library.

Small 10cm copy of Morehshin Allahyari’s King Uthal model which I had printed at Columbia University Science and Engineering Library.

Outside of this conference other projects have also made use of 3D rendering to reconstruct artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models.

Outside the conference other efforts have been made to use 3D rendering to reconstruct the artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models. Photos are taken from old publications or submitted by users, but since the Mosul Museum saw very few visitors in recent years there is a dearth of photographs and as a result many of their models have a lower resolution. They have produced a large number of digital models but none which have yet been 3D printed in physical form, nevertheless their website serves as a virtual preservation of many objects which now exist only in digital form.

In Shanghai, NYU-Shanghai undergraduate Lewei Huang created an interactive virtual reality model of his rapidly gentrifying childhood neighborhood, preserving the unique early twentieth century mixture of Chinese and Western architecture even as bulldozers begin to make way for urban development.

At Oxford, the Ancient Lives Project has been crowdsourcing a massive effort to transcribe an estimated 495,000 papyrus fragments excavated at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and kept at Oxford’s Sackler Library since 1898 which have never been published. Volunteers with at least a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet work transcribing the documents, which are then checked by a computer against known Greek texts. Among the project’s recent discoveries are a report from a doctor on a slave girl who drowned swimming in a canal, a fragment of Euripides’ lost play Andromeda and a fragment of a second century B.C. Greek drama based on the book of Exodus.

The interface for Oxford University's Ancient Lives project crowdsourcing the transcription of papyri.

The interface for Oxford University’s Ancient Lives Project crowdsourcing the transcription of papyri.

The Egypt Exploration Society has made similar crowdsourcing efforts to digitize their massive card catalogs which documented the society’s early excavations. Princeton University Libraries has made an even more ambitious project to document rare Arabic texts from Yemen, where an active manuscript culture among the Zaydi Muslims continues to the present day even in the face of war and religious persecution and an estimated 50,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts are held in private libraries. The Princeton project distributed high-resolution cameras to local workers, who scanned as many books as they can and sent the files out of the country to be hosted on Princeton’s library servers while avoiding removing the books themselves from their cultural context. With war raging in Yemen and frequent airstrikes targeting Yemeni cities, these archives are more endangered than ever.

Most ambitious is a project proposed by Charles Henry of the Council on Library and Information Resources to create a Digital Library of the Middle East to aggregate as much information as possible into a massive database which can preserve the heritage of the region.

All of these projects harness the power of the Internet to either enable broad participation in heritage preservation or leverage the distributed nature of the Internet to preserve thousands of copies of endangered or lost artifacts and make them accessible to the world. In the process, many of them may give their participants a sense of involvement and ownership in preserving the world’s history which they may never have felt before.

But this also raises some interesting philosophical issues. All digital data is in reality just a long string of 0s and 1s which a computer interprets to create a representation of whatever image, object, or sound was recorded. No digital copy can ever truly replicate the original. It can only represent it.

3D printed model of relief of the Hatrene goddess Marten. Morehshin Allahyari, “Material Speculation: ISIS,” Image courtesy of the artist, 2016.

On the other hand, while modern representations can never connect us directly to the past in the same way as an authentic ancient object, it is important to remember that preservation is not a single event but a continuous process. Many of the classical sculptures which populate the world’s museums are Roman marble copies of long lost Greek bronzes which were made hundreds of years earlier. Likewise, we do not have the original texts of any ancient author, rather, we have versions which were copied over and over throughout the centuries. Age and preservation means both are now considered nearly as valuable as the originals.

In recent decades, replicas have been made of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Lascaux cave paintings when it became apparent that the hundreds of thousands of visitors who filed through them each year were causing irreversible damage to the artwork.

Yet despite the popularity of these exhibits, cognitive studies have shown that people find replica or duplicate artworks to be fundamentally different from the original, especially if the replica was produced by a different artist than the original.

Everything rots eventually. Statues rust, ink fades, paper rots and pottery breaks. Digital media decays over time, or is recorded on formats which cannot be read by modern computers. The job of the preservationist never ends. Time and decay cannot be reversed, all the preservationist can do is slow down the rate of entropy.

But even if the original will inevitably decay, the information contained therein – the shapes, sounds, colors, textures and letters – can and has been preserved through continually creating new physical objects to carry that information. A close replica of a statue, a new edition of a written text, a digital representation of either of the above – all further the goal of ensuring this information is not lost. A replica is not the same as the original, but every original will eventually decay and then all that will remain are our continually created representations.

It is of course a terrible thought to imagine a world where there are no longer originals of ancient works of art but only digital representations. The impermanence of digital files, which unlike manuscripts and statues can be erased in a fraction of a second, is another difficulty worth considering. (Not to mention the potential for catastrophic loss of cultural materials through hacking, computer viruses or even an EMP blast). But its strength lies in its ability to replicate millions of copies of an artifact around the world in no time at all. It is possible that some day, like the sculptures of Praxiteles, that may be all we have left.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2016 2:58 PM

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Peter Tompa permalink
    March 10, 2016 3:45 PM

    This is related, but not focused on ISIS and terrorism:

    Incidentally, it’s my understanding that the Italians created a 3D image of the famous statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome for purposes of making an exact copy that now stands outside in place of the original.

  3. March 22, 2016 9:19 PM

    This was a good post, I really enjoyed reading it.
    I’m really blown away by the work being done to preserve and protect these ancient things and places from malicious destruction.
    I read that some of these organizations have need of volunteers, hmmmmm.
    Thanks again for posting.

  4. March 24, 2016 8:32 AM

    This round-up of digital preservation projects is very heartening (and well written). Thank you.


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