Creating a life for lost culture — how are digital technologies helping to preserve art?

 

The progression of digital technologies in recent years has made vast improvements to the availability and appreciation of the arts and culture on a global scale. World-famous art and architecture, previously unattainable to ordinary people are now becoming visible to the world, outside of museum and gallery settings. Not only this, but with virtual reality, users are now able to manipulate, handle and investigate objects and artworks than previously sat behind glass displays.

What I want to look at in this article is the potential for technology to not only allow a virtual life for these objects, but to allow them to continue living digitally, following their physical destruction.

One such example is Project Mosul (Rekrei) which, as its name suggests, emerged from the Mosul

Museum in Iraq, partly as a response to the permanent damage done to the museum and its artifacts in February 2015 by ISIS

Project Mosul involves this ever-increasing use of digital technology, following in the footsteps of similar projects such as the reconstruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban. This is an entirely crowd-sourced project which collects public photographs of monuments, museums, artworks and artifacts damaged by natural disasters or human intervention, and uses the gathered data to create 3D representations - creating a ‘Virtual Museum’ whose aim is “to help preserve our global, shared, human heritage.”

The Rekrei website lets users navigate to sites which have suffered destruction and loss of culture, art and heritage - whether through human intervention or natural disaster. Here the users can visit and explore the sites through 3-D images, as well as upload their own photographs in order to contribute to the growing archive.

The Rekrei website lets users navigate to sites which have suffered destruction and loss of culture, art and heritage - whether through human intervention or natural disaster. Here the users can visit and explore the sites through 3-D images, as well as upload their own photographs in order to contribute to the growing archive.

In 2015, The Economist put together a project called RecoVR: Mosul, which collaboratively used the work already done by Project Mosul to create a virtual tour of the museum itself. Users spoke of the feeling of empathy they got from the VR tour as an ordinary museum visitor, walking through the galleries and viewing ancient statues, carvings, ceramics and architecture that no longer existed in physical form.

Since 2015, Project Mosul has expanded beyond its original scope to encompass sites from all over the world - recording and recreating sites and objects lost in earthquakes (e.g. the Nepal earthquake of April 2015), floods and human destruction (see map image above). Although the 3D images presented on the site are often incomplete, with limited description of their context, the viewer still feels drawn to them.

Faced with the double absence of an object that is not only at a physical distance, as is the case with most online collections, but no longer exists at all in its physical form, we begin to take an intense interest in each object - perhaps even more than we would in a conventional gallery or art space.

Project Mosul is one of a growing number of initiatives aimed at protesting loss through objects. One other notable example is the work ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’ by Iranian artist and activist Morehshin.

Allahyari who engages in thorough archival research, digitally recreates artefacts, and employs 3D printing. Printable files have been archived via her site and made available online to download and be used by the public.

The digital reconstruction is a new entity in itself, entrenched in activism:

“The copy is actually making it more and more powerful every time you have a new 3D print of it,” 

She declares, speaking of the artefact that has been destroyed and lives on as a memory. The more saturated the online and offline world becomes with these reconstructions, the more they resist the removal of history.

 
A 3D reconstruction of the Temple of Bel from Palmyra, which was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. From within the Rekrei website, users can choose to view all the images in VR - meaning they can freely navigate through 360 degrees of an object, artwork or piece of architecture like this - in a way that has never been done before.

A 3D reconstruction of the Temple of Bel from Palmyra, which was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. From within the Rekrei website, users can choose to view all the images in VR - meaning they can freely navigate through 360 degrees of an object, artwork or piece of architecture like this - in a way that has never been done before.

 

What, then, can initiatives such as Project Mosul accomplish on a human level? Some have argued that the safeguarding of heritage goes hand-in-hand with the protection of communities in conflict zones (see Drazewska 2015), as much of their identity is grounded into the landscape.

When asked about why he took up the project, co-founder Matthew Vincent revealed that he worked in Jordan for over a decade, and that seeing videos of the destruction in Mosul hit too close to home. Vincent thus felt compelled to find ways to restore one of the key aspects of the cultural heritage: visual representation.

There is no recreating what has been destroyed, as their destruction has now become a part of these artifacts’ life histories.

Yet that doesn’t mean we cannot remember, reconstruct, and experience, in the form of cultural initiatives to preserve history, perform artistic acts of resistance to forceful loss, and channel displays of empathy.

Project Mosul continues to build empathetic communities entirely through crowd-sourced efforts, with their ongoing aim to digitally restore cultural loss, piece by piece and memory by memory.

Heritage is part of people’s stories, It’s not just the material culture but everybody’s lives who are invested in that. You erase that heritage and you are taking part of that story away.
— Matthew Vincent
 

Hear the founders Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent talking about the project: