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Digital cultural heritage: Reviving the worlds we have lost

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Digital cultural heritage: Reviving the worlds we have lost

Many of our cultural heritage sites are facing irreversible destruction threats. Can digital technology revive what we have lost, protect what is at risk?

The essence of our cultural heritage is firmly rooted in our past. And yet its significance remains relevant to our present and future, a force that shapes our identity and develops our historical consciousness. Artifacts and archaeological sites that have long lost the value associated with their original function acquire new meaning and worth from a historical perspective. However, if time infuses historical value, it also brings new pressures that threaten the very survival of our cultural heritage: extensive destruction and looting at times of war, natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, overexploitation and mass tourism, all feature as factors that negatively impact our cultural heritage. In the context of such overpowering threats, digital technology offers a potential solution: a promise to save the worlds we are losing – albeit in a radically different form.

Our cultural heritage at threat

At present, UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites numbers a total of 56 – of which 40 are classified as ‘cultural’ sites and 16 as ‘natural’ sites [1]. As shown in graph 1, this fits into a pattern of steady increase in the number of endangered sites witnessed over the past decades. Moreover, as illustrated in graph 2, considerable geographical variation is observed, with an overwhelming 41% of all endangered sites being located in Arab states [1], a percentage readily explained by prolonged armed conflicts and extremist violence, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

It is estimated that extremist violence in Iraq destroyed nearly 70% of Nineveh – the oldest city of the Assyrian empire – and 80% of Nimrud [2];  overall, according to UNESCO, 80% of the Old City of Mosul was severely damaged during IS occupation [3]. Systematic looting by IS in Mosul and other heritage sites was undertaken in part to finance their military campaigns; but deliberate vandalism also served an ideologically-driven campaign to erase any cultural elements perceived to contradict their extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam [4].

Digital technology as a response to destruction

Digital technology offers a promising trajectory for the recovery of the cultural heritage worlds we are losing. 

‘Project Mosul’ represents a remarkable exemplar: launched in March 2015, in the aftermath of extensive damage to the Mosul Museum inflicted by IS, the initiative brought technological innovation to the rescue of cultural heritage. Relying on the collection of crowdsourced photographs – some taken by experts, others by tourists – and using photogrammetric techniques, virtual 3D models of destroyed artifacts were constructed, protecting in this way historical memory from IS’s deliberate eradication campaign [5]. Later in the same year, the Economist Media Lab together with Project Mosul (renamed ‘Rekrei’) launched a further initiative for the digital revival of cultural heritage: ‘RecoVR Mosul: A collective reconstruction’ – an accessible virtual reality experience  showcasing digital models of historical sites and artifacts from Mosul [6].  

Virtual 3D models through crowdsourcing and digital processing techniques have since been generated for many cultural heritage sites in the face of continuing challenges. For example, the same methodologies were applied in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake of April 2015, and in response to further extremist destruction by IS in Syria following the occupation of Palmyra in May 2015 [5]. Another digital cultural heritage project materialised between October 2018 and February 2019 in the temporary exhibition ‘Age Old Cities: a virtual journey from Palmyra to Mosul’ [7]. Organised by the Arab World Institute in collaboration with Iconem – a French start-up, launched in 2013, specializing in the digitization of endangered heritage sites [8] – the exhibition was designed to ‘give life to great cities in the Arab world that are threatened or have been destroyed’, including Mosul in Iraq, Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria, and Leptis Magna in Libya [7].  

The potential of digital technology to recreate accurate 3D models of cultural heritage artifacts, entire archaeological sites even, is impressive and, no doubt, creates many opportunities. Digital modelling offers the possibility of an immersive virtual experience for both researchers and the general public to discover and explore the beauty and magnificence of our cultural heritage. Researchers can resume their analytical work using accurate, precise representations that capture in great detail the form of original artifacts. Moreover, historical understanding can be enhanced through visual projections that trace the different life stages of heritage sites: their transformations over time, phases of destruction and rebirth – after all, destruction too, once occurred, becomes part of a site’s history. Another point to consider is that virtual museums and exhibitions reduce significantly economic and environmental costs, by eliminating the need for extensive travelling to immerse oneself in the wonders of our historical past. In this way, digital technology can help broaden access to cultural heritage sites, contributing thus to the two pillars of UNESCO’s World Heritage: sharing and transmission [9].

Thanks to digital innovation, what is lost can be revived, and what is at risk can be protected. However, not all can be salvaged. Perhaps not all is lost – but something is.

Even if digital technology can produce exact replicas, perfectly accurate and wholly precise, these would still be lacking in authenticity, as this remains forever locked in the original spaces where our cultural heritage was first shaped.

A concept which may appear irrational at times – after all, artists often have a hard time distinguishing an original from a fake – authenticity is highly valued: it incorporates original inspiration and a historical dimension tied to a spatiotemporal plane that cannot subsequently be reproduced. Although digital technology relies on the concept of intangibility, the encapsulation of authenticity – a value in itself intangible – is bound to remain beyond its grasp: authenticity can be neither revived, nor recreated.

International law and international organisations protect and promote our cultural heritage. Digital technology offers a promising tool to support such efforts in the face of increasing threats, strengthening resilience through innovative strategies that open new possibilities for the future of our cultural heritage and our historical memory. There is no doubt that if a choice must be made between a digital revival of our lost heritage as opposed to its unalterable extinction in the abyss of oblivion, only those blindly engaged in deliberate acts of destruction would prefer the latter option. But digital technology should not become our last and only hope of preserving in some form treasured aspects of our past. Let us hope instead that digital technology will develop the virtual alongside the physical, each capturing what the other cannot.


[1] ‘World Heritage List Statistics’, UNESCO World Heritage Convention. [Online]. Available: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/stat/#d1

[2] ‘UNESCO calls on international community to help revive Iraq’s cultural heritage in the wake of massive destruction’, UNESCO World Heritage Convention – News, Feb. 24, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/unesco-calls-international-community-help-revive-iraqs-cultural-heritage-wake-massive-destruction

[3] ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’, UNESCO. [Online]. Available: https://www.unesco.org/en/revive-mosul

[4] ‘Mosul Museum reveals new look after IS destruction’, BBC News, May 11, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-65548395

[5] ‘About Rekrei’, REKREI. [Online]. Available: https://rekrei.org/about

[6] ‘Mosul: A collective reconstruction’, Visualise. [Online]. Available: https://visualise.com/case-study/recovr-mosul-a-collective-reconstruction

[7] ‘Age old cities’, Institut du monde arabe. [Online]. Available: https://www.imarabe.org/en/exhibitions/age-old-cities

[8] ‘Iconem studio: experience human heritage’, Iconem studio. [Online]. Available: https://iconem.com/

[9] ‘50th anniversary celebration of the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Delphi (Greece): The Next 50 – The future of World Heritage in challenging times enhancing resilience and sustainability’, UNESCO World Heritage Convention. [Online]. Available: https://whc.unesco.org/en/events/1705/




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