Imagining digital future of cultural legacy

Wan Lixin
Before natural disasters jeopardize the sustainability of cultural heritage sites, digital technology can provide preventive conservation by documentation and restoration.
Wan Lixin

FROM a purely technical point of view, given the strides in 3D visualization and 3D printing, it is already possible to approximate infinitely a work of art.

The digital version can be so real that for various reasons, the invaluable art exhibits that so charmed afficionados at museums often turn out to be digitally-enabled copies.

Does it mean that art work in the original could in one day be fully represented by its digital double?

This would never happen. Specifically, the digital heritage will always exist to assist with the conservation, narration, promotion and education of the tangible cultural objects and sites, but they would never replace the originals, according to Chen Wu-Wei, visiting assistant arts professor from New York University Shanghai in a workshop last Friday.

Chen specializes in integrating the concepts of 3D visualization, interactive info-motion design and digital sculpting into digital heritage contents development.

But although the impacts of growing digitalization on the appreciation of art can be philosophically and culturally discussed, its uses already manifest in such areas as the protection of cultural heritage, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or STEAM (with Art added) education, and in the ongoing endeavor to combine construction of smart cities with smart heritage.

Regarding its uses in protection of cultural heritage, Chen cited the example of a world cultural heritage site in Sukhothai Province in Thailand, about four hours’ drive from Chiang Mai. Chen first visited the site in March 2016. His second trip, scheduled for May last year, was prevented when the province was inundated by epic floods as a result of heavy rainfall. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in the area was damaged by flood water early in 2014.

Chen said that before floods and other natural disasters jeopardize the sustainability of cultural heritage sites, digital technology can provide preventive conservation by documentation, restoration or giving alert.

It is easy to see that the damages to, or loss of, the relic might not have been so inconsolable if the relic has been digitally documented before hand.

As a matter of fact, Chen has done pioneering job in a cyber archiving project involving Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan Province, where selected niches and caves had been digitally documented and transformed into 3-D models.

In addition to preserving both the tangible and intangible aspects of the relic in question, Chen’s work is also instrumental in helping conduct high-resolution site survey for academic and governmental uses. The models also make the artwork more accessible, and palpable, to those who cannot make it to the site. Chen enumerated a litany of decays and damages that almost no cultural heritage can be wholly immune to, given the passage of time: broken borders, buckling, cracking, deteriorations, disfiguration, delamnination, earthen movement, flood, fire risk, humidification, insects, open stitches, redeposition, solubilization, theft, vandalism, and the list can go on.

Fading smile

Digital technology can also be of use in the case of restoring cultural legacy artificially or accidentally damaged, for instance the Giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, that had been destroyed. RWTH Aachen University later performed HD laser measurement at the site, which led to the generation of a 3D textured model. The result has been processed for presentation in an immersive 3D virtual environment at the Virtual Reality Center in the university.

Regarding such restoration effort, Chen cautioned that materials used have to be reversible and non-invasive, so as to make room for future technological advances which might lead to better materials and methods.

Chen also suggested the urgency of documentation by citing the example of the Avalokitesvara of cave No 125 in Dazu rock carvings, whose shy, smiling look had so fascinated renowned architect Liang Ssu-cheng. If we compare the smile today with that in the picture taken by Liang in 1940, it would be easy to discover that the features of the smiling Avalokitesvara are no long so well defined, after being subject to the degradations over the past decades.

The digital mapping technology can also be deployed in coordinating salvaging effort in the case of collapsed buildings in disasters-stricken areas, by first having the inaccessible disaster hit area scanned and surveyed.

Chen was impressed by the development of digital technology in China.

For instance, as early as late 2015, the Palace Museum in Beijing launched its digital art museum, which afforded people an intimate view of some rare art works that for some reasons cannot be publicly displayed. Chen believed that “the best education about historical legacy is through enabling our children to have easy access to the relics, so as to help develop their affection for such legacy.”

Chen also felt inspired by well-known architect Wu Liangyong’s vision concerning the need to build the invaluable assets of culture into the contexts of urban development: “The culture of architecture comes from a local accumulation of history. It manifests itself among the built forms and in day-to-day living, exerting a voiceless influence on the experience and behavior of the inhabitants. In a sense, it is the soul of our cities, towns and villages.”

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