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“Digital colonialism?”—how technology is changing documentation of heritage sites

Ghazni Tower 3D images, Afghanistan

“The real problem is that you have to trust whoever owns the copyright to do the right thing with those images.”

Few people probably realize that archaeological excavations are inherently destructive enterprises in that the archaeological record –layers upon layers of soil containing artifacts and other cultural information—must be dismantled in order to read its secrets. But advances in technology over the past century have greatly aided the discovery, documentation, and analysis of archaeological sites. Ground-penetrating radar and other types of geophysical prospecting can reveal historical data—such as the location of ancient riverbeds in desert environments like the Sahara or ancient pyramids in heavily vegetated regions like the Yucatan peninsula.

More recently, high-tech laser scanning has been employed at heritage sites to aid in detailed recordation of intricate and complex architectural features to aid in the study and restoration of these monuments. But increasingly, the use of “laser scanning” is being used to document heritage sites as a means of preserving the historical data in case such sites are destroyed. But the question now being raised is who owns, or who should own, the historical data that is collected?

Beginning in 1933, the National Park Service embarked on an ambitious program to document for posterity thousands of cultural heritage sites, structures, and landscapes across the United States. Initially created as part of the federal government’s response to unemployment during the Great Depression, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) has since been expanded to include the Historic American Buildings Survey (HAER) and the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS). Recently, HABS/HAER/HALS was reorganized under the current NPS Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP), and HABS remains the longest standing and only New Deal program still in existence.

From its inception, the HABS program was designed to provide for public access to the work products—measured drawings, photographs, and other records—by placing these materials in the collection of the Library of Congress. Today, this collection contains records of some 40,000 of the most important historic sites in the United States. Today, these records are available to the public copyright free in both hardcopy and digital form (on the LOC’s website).

But NPS does not solely work in the United States and its territories. In 2011, an NPS team traveled to Afghanistan to help document two ancient towers with laser-scanning technology. The project also involved hosting two young architectural interns back in the US for training on the technology as they finalized the data and work products as part of the “Towers of Victory” Ghazni Towers Documentation Project. The documentation records are intended to aid in the preservation and restoration of this intricately-decorated sites. (The 2011 3D-rendering 2011 of a portion of one of the Ghazni towers in the public domain.)

While the work products of the NPS HDP are publicly available, the work products resulting from the efforts by others to use laser scanning to document heritage sites around the world may not be, raising concern by some in the international heritage preservation community. In large part, these concerns stem from the involvement of global tech companies who are partners in these endeavors. For example, ICONEM partners with Microsoft and their artificial intelligence software to compile 3D images of heritage sites and CyArk recently partnered with Google Arts & Culture in a similar manner in their Open Heritage initiative (Google Arts & Culture is a non-profit entity within Google).

CyArk maintains the mission always included public access to their data, but the company retains the copyright. The mages and data that is used to compile the images are being placed online, hosted for free by Googles Arts & Culture. Therefore, while the images are available for free, is permission from CyArk who holds the copyright necessary in order to use the data and publish resulting studies? This limitation is what led one researcher to refer to it as “digital colonialism.”


3D Scans Help Preserve History, But Who Should Own Them?

By Laura Sydell

National Public Radio

May 21, 2018

Also see

NPS Heritage Documentation Programs

National Park Service

Ghazni Towers Documentation Project

US Department of State

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