Digital preservation

Saving the past with tools of the future

Dan Headrick
21 November 2016

4 min read

Earthquakes, floods, war, the ravages of time — even the careless trampling of everyday human life — threaten precious cultural heritage sites. Armed with new tools to capture the physical in digital form, preservationists are working to save some of the world’s most important sites for future generations.

A 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck southern Taiwan before dawn on February 6, 2016. Within hours of the initial shock, 3D modelers at the National Cheng Kung University Museum launched aerial drones over devastated parts of the city of Tainan to map the destruction, which included many of the island nation’s historic buildings.

The museum’s quick action helped rescue-and-recovery personnel manage their operations while illustrating an emerging role for museum preservationists: using digital technologies to preserve the past. “The art, objects and structures people create in their lifetimes and leave behind, they communicate with future generations,” said Elizabeth Lee, managing director of CyArk, a California-based international nonprofit organization working to create 3D archives of the world’s most precious and at-risk cultural heritage sites for preservation and education.


“There has been a huge acceleration of destruction in recent years due to human aggression, and that increases the urgency of our work,” Lee said. “Cultural artifacts and buildings are targets.” Her organization has responded by ramping up efforts to train teams on the ground to identify vulnerable sites on the fringes of conflicts.

One example is Project Anqa (Arabic for phoenix, the bird that rises from the ashes), which, in collaboration with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), is training students, as well as local and international museum professionals from Syria, Iraq and other high-risk areas in the Middle East, to use “reality capture technology” in the field to preserve sites in digital form. The goal is to preserve a detailed record of at-risk artifacts such as the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan, hewn from the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan more than 1,500 years ago and dynamited by the Taliban in 2001.

Using 3D scanning tools that fit into a small backpack, field teams aim laser beams at every surface of a historic site. The beams pulse hundreds of thousands of times per second to collect data points—each a unique point with x,y,z coordinates and a color and intensity value. Software, which advances almost daily, processes the data to recreate, in virtual reality, what humanity and Mother Nature may not preserve.

In 2010, a CyArk team, working with the National Park Service in the United States, spent two weeks rappelling down the carved faces of Mount Rushmore collecting 3D data of every facet of the mountain, from the pupils of Teddy Roosevelt’s eyes to George Washington’s nostrils. (Image © CyArk) 

In 2010 a CyArk team, working with the National Park Service in the United States, spent two weeks rappelling down the carved faces of Mount Rushmore collecting 3D data of every facet of the mountain, from the pupils of Teddy Roosevelt’s eyes to George Washington’s nostrils. Since then, drone and software technology has advanced rapidly, accelerating the team’s progress. Today, CyArk has digitally archived more than 200 sites from more than 40 countries across all seven continents – from the Brandenburg Gate to the Mayan temples of Tikal in Guatemala, from expedition huts in Antarctica to the Tower of London and the ancient Drakensberg rock art in South Africa. “These are man-made objects at the end of the day, and they do degrade and change over time,” Lee said.


Along the northern banks of the Danube in Linz, Austria, the Ars Electronica Center (AEC) incorporates breakthrough digital technology within its museum offerings to not only preserve historical artifacts, but also to help define the cultural future of a world rushing into new and uncharted technologies. The center’s Futurelab serves as a research and development engine and scientific and artistic think tank.



Gerfried Stocker, the Center’s artistic director led the development of Deep Space 8K, a pioneering, immersive and interactive experience. At its most basic, Deep Space is a massive projection room where as many as 100 people can virtually tour CyArk’s archive of cultural sites around the world, among other virtual experiences. Futurelab’s goal, he said, is to develop “prototypical future sketches” incorporating media art, architecture, interactive exhibitions, virtual reality and real-time graphics that will shape human societies of tomorrow.

It is likely that these tools will determine how future generations come to know and remember past cultures, museum technologists say. Elizabeth Rodini, professor of art history and director of the Program in Museums and Society at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, said the field of digital preservation has exploded in recent years. “Virtual archaeology is actually a concept now, which I find fascinating,” she said.


Organizations from more than 20 countries comprise the membership of the Virtual Archeology International Network (INNOVA), which promotes research and training as well as integration between universities and the private sector. Museum preservationists have begun partnering with gaming and virtual reality (VR) companies in new private- sector ventures that bring virtual cultural access to millions of people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it.

Lee said her organization has been approached by a video gaming company that has 128 million users to develop content compatible with existing platforms. Technology market research firm Tractica forecasts that 15.9 million new VR headsets will be shipped in 2016, according to online tech magazine Motherboard. Such trends will help popularize and support digital preservation, Lee said.

“Now we’re seeing for the first time technology that is able to interact, especially with the lay person,” she said. “We can bring you there. Put on a headset and we drop you right in the middle of these sites.”

Visit some of the sites digitally preserved by CyArk:

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