Over the past decades, the global society has been rapidly shifting from conventional analog to digital technologies. Such transition has brought about numerous benefits to mankind, such as reinforced international connectivity, enhanced data collection, and freedom from spatial restraints. A less renowned field where digitalization has come into active use is cultural heritage preservation. International organizations, governments, and museums worldwide have made significant progress in this sector, creating a sustainable and inclusive reservoir of heritage. This article looks into the implementation and outcomes of these activities.
Being rich in cultural heritage as well as the resources to protect and preserve them, the European Union (EU) and its constituting countries have actively powered cultural heritage efforts throughout the 21st century. The utilization of digital technology has been one of them. From artificial intelligence to 3D tech and virtual reality, these technologies are being utilized to not only ensure preservation but also to promote the European culture and engage broader audiences both in and out of the EU. In 2019, 26 EU countries signed a Declaration of cooperation on advancing the digitalization of cultural heritage. The Declaration “invites the Member States to leverage synergies between digital technologies and Europe’s cultural heritage in three key areas: (i) a pan-European initiative for 3D digitization of cultural heritage artifacts, monuments, and sites; (ii) enhancing cross-sector, cross-border cooperation and capacity building in the digital cultural heritage sector; and (iii) fostering civic engagement, innovative use and spillovers in other sectors” (European Commission). In the following year 2020, the European Commission released the “10 basic principles for 3D digitization of tangible cultural heritage” which served as an important guideline for museums and heritage professionals. The need for digitalization was further highlighted with the start of COVID 19, which caused many cultural institutions to close. However, many were able to quickly respond by expanding their pre-established digital services. The European Commission also offers sustained support for cultural heritage innovation and research through its Horizon 2020 program. From 2014 to 2020, the program has funded around 70 million euros in digital cultural heritage.
(damaged Iraq heritage site, UNESCO)
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is another leading actor in the digitalization of cultural heritage. Similar to the activities of the EU, the international organization focuses on preservation through documentation and making culture more accessible to a wider audience. As part of its initiative, UNESCO has launched the #ShareOurHeritage campaign in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. It is an interactive online exhibition featuring UNESCO World Heritage sites from across the globe, including the Mudejar Architecture of Aragon of Spain, Ngorongoro Conservation Area of Tanzania, and the Pampulha Modern Ensemble of Brazil. Another significant activity of UNESCO is the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in conflict zones. An exemplary case is Iraq. While home to six UNESCO world heritage sites, the country, and its heritages have been constantly affected by unstable conflict situations, which resulted in deliberate and non-deliberate destruction of heritage as well as looting of relics. In response, the Iraqi State Board of Heritage and Antiquities has proposed an initiative to “create a central database and digitally preserve and archive historical documents and photographs related to World Heritage sites in Iraq. The project will collect the pictures and documents held in several archives, digitize them, and catalog them to improve access to crucial conservation material and ensure the documents’ safeguarding” (UNESCO). Similar measures are being undertaken in Middle Eastern and African conflict zones as a sustainable and accomplishable way to preserve valuable information.
(before and after digital reconstruction of Leptis Magna of Lybia, CBNC)
In addition to nation-states and international organizations, some public sectors have also joined heritage preservation efforts by utilizing digital technology. In 2020, the London-based agency NeoMam Studios and insurance company Budget Direct have collaborated to digitally reconstruct destroyed heritage sites. With input from Turkish and Serbian architects, computer-generated renderings, and animations, the sites were digitally restored to their state before destruction. Museums and universities have also launched digital restitution projects. The ArchAIDE project led by the University of Pisa has developed “innovative software to identify fragments of pottery found during excavations and to store them in a dedicated database” (Cordis). According to archeologist Gabriele Gattiglia, this software will be able to save up to two-thirds of the time and effort spent on the identification of pottery artifacts.
The role of digital technology in cultural heritage preservation has increased continuously over the past decade, with funding and involvement of nations, international organizations, and private sectors. While COVID 19 has highlighted the need for digitalization, global demand and the need for digital expansion are prospected to continue in the post-COVID era. Following this, interregional collaboration similar to that of the EU would be much needed for an effective, sustainable, and inclusive digital environment for heritage preservation.
Devčić, Helga Bubanović, and Ivana Šimunec. “How Digitization Can Help to Preserve the Cultural Heritage.” EY, 25 June 2021, https://www.ey.com/en_hr/consulting/how-digitization-can-help-to-preserve-the-cultural-heritage-.
“Exploring World Heritage from Home with UNESCO.” UNESCO, 30 Sept. 2020, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/cultureresponse/exploring-world-heritage-from-home-with-unesco.
“How Digital Technologies Can Play a Vital Role for the Preservation of Europe’s Cultural Heritage.” European Comission, 16 Feb. 2021, https://cordis.europa.eu/article/id/413473-how-digital-technologies-can-play-a-vital-role-for-the-preservation-of-cultural-heritage.
Pitrelli, Monica Buchanan. “Watch These 5 Endangered UNESCO Sites Get Digitally Restored in a Matter of Seconds.” CNBC, CNBC, 30 July 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/30/watch-5-unesco-sites-get-digitally-restored-in-a-matter-of-seconds.html.