Grand challenges for cultural heritage databases, from preservation to best practices

The same digital revolution that fuels social movements and new technology is also transforming the preservation of cultural heritage.

Computer scientists and engineers are working with governments, museums, law enforcement agencies, and private groups to collect databases for everything from paintings and sacred sculpture to endangered languages and city streetscapes. Those databases, in turn, are being used to track down stolen items, assess damage after natural disasters, and disseminate cultural heritage information on a global scale.

Read about more events at the U.N. Global Colloquim of University Presidents.

Those efforts took center stage April 12 at a panel discussion for the eighth U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents (UNGC), hosted this year by Yale.

“I think people forget technology isn’t some autonomous, external force,” said Yale computer science professor Holly Rushmeier, who moderated the discussion and is a member of the Digitization Lab at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. “Technologists and computer scientists like myself build tools to empower people and amplify human effort.”

Certainly, the masses of cultural heritage data are wide-ranging. There are vast digital libraries of collections, as well as images, content, and audio from cell phones, social media, and satellites. People across the globe can engage with this information, but there is little standardization in the way such content is presented or authenticated.

As Bertrand Lavedrine of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, put it, “It is essential that we ensure information integrity.”

The panelists raised a number of issues relating to cultural heritage and technology. For example, Miloš Drdácký of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Academy outlined an ontological approach for assessing damage to immovable cultural heritage objects; Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, presented information about an open-source web platform that can preserve data about cultural monuments, buildings, art, and historic sites.

The ongoing threats to cultural heritage are varied, the panelists noted: war, theft, terrorism, climate change, natural disasters — even economic development. Technology has the power to lessen the impact of those threats, they said.

Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project said his group has amassed a large database of artwork and sacred sculptures, and used it to help retrieve millions of dollars of stolen artworks. India Pride also is using social media to mobilize public opinion.

Stefano de Caro, director-general of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, talked about how cell phones and dating-sharing technology helped to identify Haitian voodoo temples after the 2010 earthquake there. Similar techniques were used to assess risk and damage to cultural heritage sites after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, as well.

Two Yale scholars also presented information. Claire Bowern, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Linguistics, cited the need for advanced technology in helping preserve endangered languages around the world. Elihu Rubin, an associate professor at the School of Architecture, described his extensive work documenting New Haven’s Crown Street — its buildings, its residents, and the way it evolves over time.

In addition, the panel discussed the impact of digitization and 3D printing on the way cultural heritage is perceived. Such technology can create copies of art that is later destroyed; it can give people access to things they’ll never see in person; it can even provide a blueprint for reconstructing a damaged cultural site.

The possibilities transcend science and research, said Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “This is more than a revolution,” Roth said.