New technologies—and initiatives like "Scan the World"—are helping us to preserve and access cultureby Martin Roth / June 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Why Islamic State wants to destroy the past
A year ago, Islamic State took control of the ancient Semitic city of Palmyra, in Syria. The world watched as deeply upsetting scenes of death and devastation took place, including the execution of Khaled al-Asaad, the city’s head of antiquities for 40 years. He was killed after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of hidden relics that the extremists sought to destroy.
These kind of attacks are not new or isolated phenomena. In early 2015, IS demolished parts of the 2,700-year-old Nineveh wall in Mosul, and it has destroyed other artefacts in museums, churches and mosques across Iraq and Syria. The Taliban have committed similar acts in Afghanistan, most famously the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
Sadly, headline-grabbing actions by fanatics are not the only threats to our cultural heritage. UNESCO deems 48 of its World Heritage Sites to be at risk, and in the 20-year history of the World Monuments Fund, nearly 800 sites have been on its watchlist as endangered. Conflict, neglect, vandalism, urbanization, natural disasters and mass tourism are all contributing to irreparable damage to art, architecture and heritage around the globe.
This gloomy list points to two realities. First, conservation efforts are not always able to protect artefacts. Second, many original objects are too fragile to be exhibited, or the environment they are in is too dangerous to access. If we cannot see, study and share our cultural heritage with the world, what then?
As it turns out, advances in digital scanning and fabrication are opening up new opportunities for preservation. Nowadays most material culture can be recorded and stored in bytes; online platforms can crowd-source scans from across the globe; 3D printers can be built and used at home and copies of cultural artefacts can take on myriad forms.
As a complement to “traditional” conservation, the value to culture of being able to create, store and protect accurate records of objects is clear. Copies are now not only educational tools but also prime transmitters of precious knowledge. However, several fundamental questions emerge. What should we copy and how? What distinguishes a bad copy from one with lasting value? And what is the relationship between the copy and the original in a society that privileges authenticity?
Museums have long engaged with this topic. In the 19th century, museums across Europe produced copies of artefacts to display in their galleries to bring culture to the public. Using the cutting-edge technologies of the time, including electrotypes, photography and plaster casting, these exhibits were both a spectacle and a triumph of technological achievement. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, two vast courts were constructed to accommodate monumental casts.
By the early 20th century, however, casts had fallen out of fashion, regarded as inauthentic and kitsch. Only recently has the copy taken on a new value: that of preservation. At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the V&A has collaborated on a project for the Applied Arts Pavilion, A World of Fragile Parts. It explores how new ways of making and storing copies help preserve the treasures of the past.
The facsimile of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch produced by the Institute for Digital Archaeology was recently on display in Trafalgar Square. A 3D digital scale model of the arch was created from hundreds of photographs and then carved from a block of marble by a computerised stonecutter.
Alongside a section of the arch, the exhibition displays a 3D-printed bust of Nefertiti produced by artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles. The artists claim that they secretly used a Kinect Xbox controller to scan the original bust on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum. This controversial art heist, known as #NefertitiHack, may not have happened in the way that the artists say, but it opens up a wider debate about preservation, reconstruction, and access.
The community initiative Scan the World takes this even further; digitally archiving cultural artefacts from across the globe and making them available to download and print for free. In Venice, they present a 3D model of the famous Sleeping Muse bronze created by Constantin Brâncuși in 1910.
Ultimately these projects lead to a questioning of the cult of the original. Which has a greater authenticity, an arch recreated in exact detail by a robotic arm or an imperfect copy reconstructed using the same artisanal techniques as the original? Do preserving craft and skills have equal importance to the preservation of objects themselves? What should we choose to record digitally? When does it become appropriate to recreate something in a physical form? Could an abundance of copies endanger our heritage rather than protect it?
We truly live in a world of fragile parts; even the seemingly permanent decays. The questions raised by today’s technologies might not yet have answers, but the debate could not be timelier.
A World of Fragile Parts at La Biennale di Venezia, supported by Volkswagen Group, runs until 27 November 2016