The virtual museums preserving our cultural heritage

As cultural heritage sites come under threat from conflict and climate change, efforts to preserve them are facing new and difficult challenges. We find out if VR could be the answer

On the 26th of February 2015 news outlets the world over began to stream footage of historic destruction, as self-proclaimed ISIS members slowly began to smash through statues and artefacts in an act of systematic destruction carried out at the Mosul Cultural Museum. In a short video, hundreds of years’ worth of Iraqi culture was reduced to rubble, to the sound of mindless cheering.

This is not the first instance of cultural desecration in Iraq. In fact, since 2003 reports of libraries, museums and archives burned, looted and lost to the collateral of war have surfaced across the internet. Iconoclasm is not a new phenomenon; some of the earliest examples date back to Ancient Rome during the Byzantium Empire as relics and iconography were purged in the name of Christianity. Similar examples can be found in the destruction that occurred throughout the 1500s during the protestant reformation in Europe. The general idea of the practice being that the dissemination of cultural heritage erases or quietens its historical importance, and discourages those attempting to preserve the ‘wrong’ heritage.

Out of the millions moved by the sight of the toppling statues in the Mosul Museum, two archelogy students, Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent, were spurred into action. While iconoclasm may be a historical practice, in an age of digital cameras, video footage and selfies, technology exists that allows us to capture and preserve history in a way that has not been possible before.

Their creation, Rerkei (formerly Project Mosul), is a crowdsourced virtual reality (VR) reconstruction of the destroyed museum, which created in collaboration with the Economist Media Lab, allows visitors to explore the Mosul Cultural Museum, as well as 3D replicas of the destroyed artefacts, all from the comfort of their own home.

Rebuilding the rubble

The original project was launched two weeks after the propaganda video was released. Heartbroken by the destruction, Coughenour and Vincent began to brainstorm ways to digitally reconstruct the lost heritage. They landed on a way of using crowdsource 2D images and reality based modelling to create 3D replicas, which could be hosted online.

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“It’s funny because when we first proposed this to other people they were like ‘No this can’t be done, you can’t just take a bunch of random images and rebuild things,’” says Vincent. “It happened that I had tested the idea out on a museum in Chicago with pieces that I know well to see if it worked, and it did.”

The pair began to send out photograph requests to museum curators, stakeholders and US servicemen who had been stationed in the area before it was destroyed. From the initial batch of images, Coughenour and Vincent were able to produce their first replica from the Moseul Cultural Museum: the 1st century AD, Lion of Al-lāt. Word quickly spread about the project and soon volunteers from around the world began sending batches of images and creating 3D model replicas, which were uploaded to an online platform.

“When we launched this project last year we thought there would be maybe a dozen people who would see it and want to help out, which just tends to be the nature of a lot of cultural heritage projects. They never really get this sort of public attention and we were blown away when we saw the momentum that this project gained and the desire to be able to help,” says Vincent.

In November, the Vincent and Coughener were approached by the Economist Media Lab with an opportunity to create a VR recreation of the Mosul Cultural Museum, which would be open to the public and would house the digital 3D artefacts created by the Rekrei volunteers, alongside three 3D printed artefacts. Once the virtual recreation was complete and the digital artefacts returned to the museum, the experience was enhanced with additional content including audio interviews with heritage specialists.

According to Coughener, the response to the project has been wholly positive, with even more volunteers coming forward to help preserve cultural heritage.

“One of the first emails we got was from one of the former curators at the Mosel museum and it was a very simple short email saying thank you,” he says.

Please do touch

As VR technology improves, so does the potential for a more rounded digital documentation of heritage sites. While this does not negate the need to preserve the physical sites, Vincent and Coughener believe that future developments in VR technology will offer a wider audience the chance to experience these relics in an engaging environment.

In VR not only can you view the models in a virtual museum, but you can give annotated tours, you can provide text – more information – you can add audio

“When we launched this project we couldn’t have foreseen what we can already do now with VR, and with the release of the HTC Vive you basically have room-scale VR so you can actually walk around a room with controllers with haptic feedback,” explains Coughener “You would be able to interact with the objects – you would be able to zoom and pan and actually view them as if you were actually standing in front of them – you could view them at their original scale.”

This interactivity provides a new layer of empathetic engagement as the restrictions associated with traditional museums do not apply. There is no need for glass cases to stop the relic from being damaged, no area too fragile or too near to collapse to be visited. Users are encouraged to take control of how they view each item, and to interact with it. The VR setting also creates and exciting opportunity for archaeologists and museum curators to offer additional content alongside the items to heighten the user’s knowledge and understanding of cultural heritage.

“In VR not only can you view the models in a virtual museum, but you can give annotated tours, you can provide text, more information, you can add audio,” says Coughener. “You could also sync it with interviews with people who worked at that museum or were extremely fond of a particular archaeology site. You could have interviews with the archaeologists themselves and that’s where it becomes a much more immersive experience for people to remember what has been lost.”

Preserving all heritage sites

This technology is not simply limited to heritage sites threatened by conflict. Since the project launched the website has gathered images from the Maya site of La Milpa, which has collapsed due to natural decay; through to The Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sava in New York, which was destroyed by a fire earlier this year.
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While there is no way to bring back the priceless pieces that have been lost, decayed or destroyed, Vincent hopes that the project may give people a greater understanding of the historical and cultural significance of sites and artefacts, as well as promoting the need to preserve the remaining heritage sites while they are still standing.

“Just imagine a scenario where we could go to Palmyra, for example and rather than physically reconstructing the heritage that has been destroyed you instead create a VR memorial of that heritage,” says Vincent. “So people could visit the site, they go in, they jack into the VR, have the whole experience, walk through the temple and then when they disconnect they are confronted with the reality of that lost heritage. I think this is a way that we can as a global society start confronting the problems of heritage and the ways that we can protect it.”

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