In light of the recent tragedy at Notre Dame,World has come to realise the fragility of even highly funded and protected heritage in the west. A lot of support has been outpouring from both through crowdfunding and billionaire donations for the restoration of the 800 year old Cathedral.
In terms of resources and attention its getting, the Notre Dame represents an extremely rare few and primarily western monuments which can so quickly raise the funds for restoring the damages, most heritage sites in the world are not fortunate enough. Despite all the donations and media coverage, the efforts to undo the damages in Notre Dame could have been a completely lost cause, if there was no documentation of the building. How do you restore something without knowing what it was like ? A lot of our heritage perish due to absence of this documentation.
Notre Dame has been heavily studied by architects, scholars and artists in the past but the most architecturally relevant and accurate record of the building came from the Late historian Andrew Tallon.
Andrew Tallon was fascinated by the building, his love for the structure made him study the buildings architecture extensively and eventually he painstakingly mapped the whole structure, each pillar, each details with laser scanners and photographs, he used the data collected to create an information rich 3D reconstruction of the building. This reconstruction holds all the angles,distances and curves of the building in a resolution which could perhaps guide the restoration effort which will start in the aftermath.Even if the building isn’t restored the way it was ( because of sheer amount of ecological resources a faithful restoration would take ) , this 3D model archives the architectural history of the building, which can be used by scholars to study the building even after its completely changed and even allow people to experience the cathedral in the virtual world. Andrew Tallon passed away a year after the work which would perhaps help the beloved cathedral to live another day to tell its story.
But there is only so much one Andrew Tallon can do. In non-western and even in western countries, we are losing our built heritage rapidly due to factors of development,neglect,age,terrorism,violence and even natural calamities. Most of the times, these buildings are not documented even among the ones which are relatively famous, only a few have architecturally relevant snapshots which can be deployed in case a tragedy hits the building.
Organisations across the globe have recognised this problem and are urgently working to document and conserve all they can while the buildings are still there, even we at the Busride labs have been actively engaged in the practice but the sheer number of heritage sites we have across the globe calls for an approach which can be scaled and be scaled at a low cost. Heritage conservation needs to be decentralised, perhaps even crowdsourced. Just a few years back, scaling something like this would have been prohibitively expensive(A laser scanner costs a lot) or maybe even impossible (There are only so many architects in the world).
But recent advancements in the field of computer vision, photography and computing have made a technology called photogrammetry extremely inexpensive and accessible. Photogrammetry is a 3D scanning technique which can use photographs to generate a highly accurate and layered 3D reconstruction of a subject, whether it be terrain,objects,buildings or whole cityscapes. The VFX and Game Industry has been utilising it for sometime and now Museums and Heritage conservators have started using it document historic objects and buildings too. All you need to start is lots of photographs of the subject, and with mobile phone camera’s getting better every year, It’s now possible to avoid the costs of expensive DSLRs, in our practice, I have been using a 2016 phone for the task of documenting 400 year old churches.
The technology and the penetration of mobile phones with good camera makes it possible to crowdsource an effort of documentation of art and heritage. With the right infrastructure support a platform can be deployed which can allow the stakeholder,locals, and even tourists to contribute to conservation of heritage sites.
The platform would need to have a few core characteristics:
- Easy contribution
- Verification of Information
- Open Access to All
For the crowdsourcing efforts to be successful, the contribution process should be simple and easy for volunteers. A good model of this can be possibly seen in Google Maps, google maps allows one to contribute to the mapping process by asking user simple questions about the places they visited, it allows people to contribute photographs, address, timings and other information and also in a way gamifies the process using a points system and leader board of local guides. Other mapping efforts like openstreetmaps also allow a similarly easy way to contribute to the process. We should not expect the volunteers to be experts of architecture or mapping, all the technicalities should be handled by the platform not the volunteers.
A volunteer can install an application which guides them through the process, perhaps it just asks them to take photos from different angles and automatically geotags, add the orientation of camera, time of day and other metadata that is technically essential for process like photogrammetry. Perhaps important details,notes,scholar references can also be annotated in the photographs, the application can also add information like soundscape,videos etc.
The data collected by volunteers can be stored per monument in the database and the photographs can be pre-processed using machine learning to remove unusable, crop out photos with humans or moving objects or make lighting even for photos with different lighting conditions, all of which is essential for photogrammetry. The system can either process the photos into 3D models by itself or just store the optimized photographs for anyone who wishes to process the dataset themselves.
The platform would also need to engage with experts and scholars to contribute and verify the knowledge collected through the volunteers, A model similar to wikipedia and or google maps can be followed here. The public documentation can be curated and edited and hyperlinked to existing historical and cultural studies by experts and in some cases even local stakeholders. For the heritage sites which are relatively unknown, the platform could allow creation of new entries by the volunteers and locals around. Perhaps a format can be worked out to identify the essential knowledge which needs to be collected. A mix of expert curation and amateur documentation would allow the platform to provide reliable information around popular sites and at the same time provide flexibility for forgotten or lost sites.
For such an effort to be truly meaningful, the platform should be truly open for everyone. The platform should allow anyone to access the information on the platform and at the same time contribute the platform. The open model as wikipedia and open street maps has demonstrated in the past allows the volunteer community to be more engaged in the process and at the same time allows a large audience to access the knowledge.
There can definitely be opportunities for monetization and revenue generation for the platform But in the heritage space, such an attempt can quickly run into roadblocks around complexity of ownership of cultural heritage. Who should get the revenue and how much? The state? The volunteer ? The platform ? The community, these question are extremely complicated and become counter productive for the effort.
Till we answer the difficult question around ownership of heritage, the platform can still generate cultural value for the heritage itself. The documentation does not only help in scholarly knowledge and conservation of heritage but also allows for new forms of engagement with the heritage, the 3D models for example can be used for virtual tourism, or making the physical tourism rich through augmenting information in the real world, It can be 3D printed and be sold as souvenir, or can become part of video games, can be displayed in museums around the world, allow people to tell stories about their past or imagine narratives of future.
The core value which such a platform would generate is democratisation of heritage beyond Institutions which determine what is heritage and what is not; And allow heritage of all shape,size,belief and forms to be respected,engaged and restored if needed, not just Notre Dame.
Heritage for All, by all of us.