Check Out the World’s Largest Archive Digitally Preserving At-Risk Heritage Sites

Open Heritage features 27 sites in 18 countries with more locations to be added in the future

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Open Heritage shows Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar, before and after the 2016 earthquake. Courtesy of Google

In 2001, Ben Kacyra watched helplessly as television reports documented the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the historic 4th- and 5th-century monuments in Afghanistan. The knowledge that no detailed documentation of the Buddhas had been taken before they were leveled especially galled him.

Kacyra, who distinctly remembered taking his first trip to the ancient city of Nineveh as a child growing up nearby in Mosul, Iraq​, knew the power of cultural heritage sites. And, as it happened, he had also recently sold his company, which pioneered portable scanning technology.

Motivated by the tragedy, Kacyra decided to use that technology to found CyArk, a non-profit with a mission to preserve cultural heritage sites so that other sites could never be completely obliterated.

Now, CyArk has teamed up with Google Arts & Culture to launch an online library of its cultural heritage sites.

Called Open Heritage, the project includes a trove of open-source data and visual representations of heritage sites. Currently it chronicles 27 sites in 18 countries, including the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., with more sites to be added in the future.

“We want to use the most current technology available to us to digitally document and record a lasting blueprint to preserve it digitally in the event it is lost in the future,” says Google Arts & Culture program manger Chance Coughenour in an interview with Coughenour coordinates cultural heritage preservation efforts for Google Arts & Culture, including this latest project with CyArk.

The project digitally documents heritage sites through 3-D laser scanning, radar images, photographs that can be used to create 3-D models, drone imagery and other non-intrusive documentations of the historical sites.

Each site location has its own an informational landing page as well to educate people looking to learn more about their significance. There are also 12 detailed 3-D models on the site that that give greater perspective on places like the Brandenburg Gate, the famous Berlin landmark that marked 225 years in 2016 and Waitangi, the Northland site where New Zealand’s founding document was written.

While Open Heritage has been in the works for a year, CyArk has been collecting this type of data at hundreds of sites since the organization was officially founded in 2003, as CyArk’s CEO John Ristevski explains in a post.

Open Heritage is meant to document a site at a particular point in time — essentially, a record of heritage that can be used for research in the future. “This is where the project shines,” Coughenour says. “It means providing raw data today for future uses.” But CyArk could also return to these sites to document something new in the event of a natural disaster or something similar, if local authorities or archaeologists need new information.

CyArk's data has already been used for various research purposes. For example, the data collected at Ayutthaya, Thailand—one of the sites featured in Open Heritage—was used by conservators to study the sinking of a temple after flooding in 2011. CyArk’s work at Bagan, the ancient city in Myanmar, Bagan, which was hit with a devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake in 2016 that caused damage to several of its Buddhist temples, was incorporated into an Unesco pilot project to study how to best conserve monuments. That data is also plugged into Open Heritage in a virtual tour of Bagan, which shows how the area looked before and after the earthquake hit.

According to Google, the Open Heritage is the world’s largest archive of this type of open-source heritage data. The idea is to use the search giant as a platform for users to access these places, some of which they may never have a chance to see in person. “We’re just visualizing it for them,” as Coughenour says. “It’s giving people the chance to virtually explore and learn about a new location maybe they’ve never heard of before."

Correction, April 18, 2018: This piece initially misstated the number of countries involved in the project. The story has been updated to reflect that there are 18 countries, not 15.

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