Never just a back-up: Digitised heritage as a resource for good
‘Recent devastating events at Notre-Dame de Paris, the National Museum of Brazil and across Syria remind us that cultural heritage is at constant risk, as much today as throughout history.’
So reads the opening line of Europeana’s Heritage at Risk exhibition released in July 2019. The exhibition considers the role that digital technologies play in the preservation and restoration of such fragile monuments — a regenerative lifeline for sites under siege from natural or manmade foes.
2020 focused our minds
The cultural sector’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic demonstrated that the world we live in is balanced precariously. A few months ago, a global pandemic might not have been high on a list of threats to our heritage. It is now. Just a couple of months of closure for a cultural institution can see it closed for good. The International Council of Museums estimated that one in eight museums may not reopen at all post-pandemic. In that case, what happens to the collections? Distributed back to donors, to other institutions, or perhaps even destroyed. Even if the works are saved this may cause serious issues. In an article for the New York Times, Julia Pagel, secretary general of the Network of European Museum Organizations said:
‘The works speak to each other in their context. If you tear that apart and sell it, for example, how do you get that context and that history back?’
But there is a brighter side
With the right application of technology, a piece of heritage is never truly lost. 2020 will be remembered as a pivotal time for many sectors as they adjust to a new world, hopefully augmenting the aspects of their industry that connect people and strengthen society. For the cultural sector, this means harnessing the power of digital culture — finding ways of creating more of it, and of using it to create a more open and knowledgeable society.
So, let’s say we could turn Europe’s industrial production to scanners and other digital equipment and make virtual copies — 2D, 3D — of everything. What then? Does it sit in a server waiting for disaster to strike so it can be used to reboot, rebuild, relive past human experiences? Is it part of our history, or is it part of our present and our future? We believe that we should use this store of digital culture not just as a back-up but as a resource to create a better future. One in which we are all more tolerant and accepting, one in which we are more knowledgeable. To do that, these items need context, they need relationships, and — much like the neurons in our brains — they get those from connecting to each other. How? Through the application of digital technologies.
Case study: The Church of Panagia of Asinou
The 12th-century church of Panagia of Asinou in Cyprus became a UNESCO World Heritage listed monument in 1985. Unassuming from the outside, the wow factor of this building lies within, in its complete coverage of unique frescoes. The building is the first, and we believe, the only fully digitised building in the world. Every millimetre of it has been digitised and made available in 2D and 3D formats.
But the documentation of a building is not achieved simply by creating a 3D model based on geometric points. We must — and with the Church of Panagia we have — go beyond the bricks. To document a monument, you must also document its story, its knowledge, its identity.
The story of the church of Panagia of Asinou lies in its unique frescoes, existing nowhere else in the Byzantine empire. The story told by those frescoes is one we recognise even today, 800 years later. The skilled artists whose knowledge and techniques are encrypted in these frescoes were in fact Christian immigrants from Syria, fleeing the Ottoman attacks on the Crusaders. They brought with them special techniques and skills that make those frescoes truly unique. The identity, work and story of those 12th-century skilled immigrant artists is preserved through the digitisation of the frescoes and made accessible via Europeana.
The availability of the frescoes in an open data landscape alongside context and resources from other online sites and services (such as Wikipedia, Cyprus’ Department of Antiquities and Tripadvisor) means that archaeologists, researchers, architects, theologists, educators, students and tourists can discover them. Half of Cyprus’ tourists visit this church, many of whom cite having seen it online as a motivation for their visit.
Access to this information from the comfort of our own homes and laptops is incredibly handy. Travel is costly and time-consuming. With more examples like the church of Panagia, we can learn, research and explore faster, with less expense and with a much lower carbon footprint.
How we’re supporting digital transformation in the cultural sector
To get more of that, we need the cultural heritage sector to be motivated and able to produce digital material. But inefficiencies in technical infrastructure make it hard for institutions to share their collections online effectively. Infrastructures need to be aligned with state-of-the-art technology and they need to be available across the board — to be open and interoperable as part of what some call the ‘European Public Sphere’. We want to leave no country, no domain, no institution behind. This requires not just the right tech, but the right support from national frameworks in each country.
And we need to create not just more digital content, but excellent quality content. A high-resolution photograph is scarcely useful unless it is accompanied by descriptive metadata telling us what it is, where and when it’s from and what or who else it relates to. This information is what makes a piece of content findable — you can’t search for something that isn’t recorded. But creating this kind of context is time-consuming too. Tech can help — the Europeana Initiative is experimenting with machine-learning algorithms to automatically or semi-automatically enrich records in a fast and scalable way.
All cultural heritage institutions are different. Large, small, well-funded or less so, tech experts or beginners. National policies guide their work and vary from one country to another. So it’s difficult to achieve consistency in digital output and mindset. We know that digital working is particularly challenging for small and medium institutions with limited internal skills and capacity. We’re working with our networks of aggregators and cultural heritage professionals to support all kinds of institutions to develop their digital skills and practice, to adopt common standards and common solutions to make quality content that is useful for a global online audience.
In the Passenger Pigeon Manifesto — A call to GLAMs, Adam Harangozó says:
‘Preservation, which is the goal of cultural institutions, means ensuring not only the existence of but the access to historical material. It is the opposite of owning: it’s sustainable sharing. Similarly, conservation is not capturing and caging but providing the conditions and freedom to live.’
Digital heritage is never just a back-up; it is a valuable resource that can be used for good. To be that, it has to be interoperable — with many networks made into one, it has be open — both in the legal sense and in its ease of use, and it has to be usable.
As our example of the church of Panagia demonstrates, useful digitisation of monuments or buildings requires much more than a series of 3D points. It requires context from all sorts of documentary heritage. Delivery of Europeana’s three priorities — improving infrastructure, improving data quality and building capacity for digital transformation — will support the cultural heritage sector to deliver this kind of context-driven digital resource.
When Notre-Dame was burning, we all wanted to know what digital records had been made, because we knew that they would make its rebuilding a much simpler task. During the lockdowns of 2020, digital has taken centre stage. We know that in times of crisis, we can turn to digital. Now, we need to make digital an integral part of the new normal — not just a crisis response.
Digital transformation is not an easy task. Disaster risk reduction is not straightforward. Preservation is full of challenges. But the solutions for these are interlinked and achievable — if we work together. Europe is ready and able to do this. Will you join us? Find out more on Europeana Pro.
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By Harry Verwayen, Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation, and Beth Daley, Editorial Adviser at the Europeana Foundation. This article is adapted from a text originally commissioned and published by the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.