What if museums decided to only exhibit reproductions?

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Visualization Center at Harvard | Photo courtesy of Professor Peter Der Manuelian

We’re often led to believe that the arts have no place in the world of math and science and vice versa — an unfortunate and obviously absurd notion that many scientists, mathematicians, and artists would dismiss out of hand.  Perhaps slightly guilty of this view myself, I sometimes struggle to find concrete examples in which these two seemingly opposing hemispheres of the brain work in concert.  But in reality, one needn’t look far for instances of this kind of “synergy.”  Simply open the paper — or more likely, pull it up on a screen — and you’ll find stories like the one of the “cyber-archaeologists” using a combination of technology and artistry to restore cultural heritage destroyed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

It is, indeed, an intriguing idea that some of the gravest problems facing cultural heritage today may in part have technological solutions.  Priceless items of Assyrian art — believed to be forever lost in an instant of savage and senseless destruction — suddenly brought back to life with the help of computer software.  Of course that is not to say that this very real existential threat posed to these antiquities can be wished away.  The situation in both Iraq and Syria is as complex as it is tragic, demanding an understanding of what is fueling the looting and destruction, as well as coordination on the part of local, regional, and international political actors to stem the tide of antiquities smuggling; according to some reports, the sale of these so-called “blood antiquities” amounts to as much as $100 million annually.  Last month, the UN pledged to curb this lucrative trade, but no amount of diplomacy can bring back, say, the majestic winged lamassu sculptures destroyed back in March.  That is where the technology comes in.

While much of the world watched in paralyzing disbelief as statues, monuments, and reliefs were broken down into unrecognizable piles of debris, three research fellows with the European Commission took it upon themselves to respond as best they knew how.  Combining their archaeological expertise with technological know-how, they founded Project Mosul, a global initiative seeking to digitally recreate antiquities through the art of photogrammetry.

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“Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements within 2D images in order to reconstruct a 3D geometry of an object or surface,” explains Matthew Vincent, one of the project’s founders.  If the digital copy is to closely resemble the original, many images of the artifact must be taken and from a multitude of angles.  But many of the photos Vincent and his team have to play with are limited to those snapped by tourists with no insight into their current use.  “This proves a quite challenging task to overcome,” he tells me, “yet thanks to the collective effort of many people, we have received enough images of some of the destroyed artifacts that we have been able to create the 3D models you find in our online gallery.”

The volunteers who have contributed to Project Mosul are connected to these antiquities in very intimate ways, says Vincent.  “[T]hey have a personal, vested interest in that particular bit of heritage,” he tells me.  And for the vast majority who never got a chance to see these items in situ, their digital surrogates can now be easily accessed online.

“[P]eople feel disenfranchised from their past because museums and researchers have turned archaeology into an elite occupation, and therefore we need to democratize the topic more by getting people involved,” explains Jack Green, chief curator for the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.  “This is why Project Mosul is a positive project, as it has a strong public engagement aspect.”

In addition to breaking down barriers and widening access to cultural heritage, having these models also makes it possible to create physical copies of the ancient objects, but for Vincent, this is only a secondary benefit, as “the greatest value that the 3D reconstructions have is not in the ability to create physical copies of lost heritage, but rather to virtually visit that heritage through the use of a web browser or, moving a step beyond, through the use of immersive visualization systems.”

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And Peter Der Manuelian, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, would likely agree.  “I do a lot of visualization teaching,” Der Manuelian tells me, “and we have created full 3D interactive models of the Giza Plateau.”  So, what does this mean for students?  Well, those fortunate enough to land in one of Der Manuelian’s classes get to sport 3D glasses while virtually crawling down ancient burial shafts and soaring high above the colossal Sphinx.  I doubt Der Manuelian has problems with attendance or students dozing off midway through lecture; well, these are Harvard students.

“Fabrication, restoration, research, and teaching are all served by 3D printing,” says Der Manuelian, who is currently working with his colleagues to create a reproduction of an ancient Egyptian royal chair.  To be clear, the process that they are using is 3D milling, not 3D printing, “since the computer-driven router is actually carving the chair’s pieces out of actual cedar wood.”  In other words, the process is subtractive, not additive as is the case with 3D printing.  The royal chair — complete with faience tile inlays and gold leaf – is expected to be finished later this year.

Prior to the chair project, the Semitic Museum made news back in 2012 for employing 3D printing to repair a ceramic lion damaged some 3,000 years ago.  But the museum’s legacy of working with replicas stretches back even further, all the way to the turn of the twentieth century when the museum first opened its doors.  “Our founder Prof. David Gordon Lyon purchased plaster casts of many famous objects from the ancient Near East to use as teaching tools.  These were the ‘virtual reality’ of their day,” says Der Manuelian.

The Oriental Institute in Chicago, too, has a long history of displaying reproductions.  Green tells me that the Institute houses copies of the Hammurabi Law Code, the Rosetta Stone, and the Shalmaneser Obelisk, some of which are more than 120 years old.

The casts at Harvard, a century older since the museum first acquired them, are in need of considerable repair – a task students have taken on with gusto.  Again, are we surprised?  They’re Harvard students, after all.  And because they are replicas of reliefs from a palace recently destroyed during the ISIS raid of Nimrud, this preservation effort has assumed even greater significance.  “I’m proud of this initiative as one small step towards keeping alive the ancient cultures that the so-called Islamic State is currently trying to destroy,” says Der Manuelian.  But at the end of the day, these are only casts, and as Der Manuelian puts it, “there is of course no substitute for preserving the original.”

But what if the original were removed from the equation altogether and not by a group of iconoclastic militants?  What if museums decided to only exhibit reproductions?  Would people pay to see them?  Well, I did, and if my former art history professor is reading, Mr. Acres, please forgive what I’m about to say.  I really enjoyed myself.

While in Italy this past April, I visited the “Van Gogh Alive” exhibition, one of 113 different international shows put on by the Australian company Grande Exhibitions.  Visitors to this particular exhibit get to view the Dutch artist’s many works projected across dozens of screens, as music befitting of each piece fills the exhibition hall.   “[W]e can take people on a magical journey of the life of Vincent van Gogh, using a carefully selected classical music score to underpin the emotion of his art at various stages of his artistic life,” says Bruce Peterson, creator and owner of the company.  But here’s the catch.  12 euros and an hour later, I never actually got to see a van Gogh original.  And no, I didn’t ask for my money back.

“We are engaging, educating, and entertaining people simultaneously,” Peterson tells me, and if their 8 million visitors are any indication, it would appear they do all of the above quite well.  Its unique combination of audio and visual technology makes for an incredibly dynamic and stimulating experience, even in the absence of the originals.  And because these exhibitions do not include them, there are few obstacles or limitations as to where a show can travel.  “We are also able to take the art in an engaging way to far flung communities and to people who could not in their wildest dreams ever travel to Paris, or Amsterdam, or New York to visit great galleries to experience great original art,” says Peterson.

Even in cities presumably saturated with cultural heritage – like Florence, for instance – these shows score highly.  Indeed, Peterson notes that the very exhibit I attended attracted over 100,000 Florentines, meaning that 85% of their visitors were local.  “This is an audience that is very discerning, drowning in rich artistic choice,” Peterson explains.  “However, they have never been offered art so creative in its presentation nor in a multi-sensory environment before, and they vote unanimously ‘yes, please’ with their feet.”

Perhaps Peterson is right; these exhibitions draw crowds in cities like Florence because they aren’t merely projections or copies of the originals.  Technology allows for an experience neither better nor worse, but one that is undoubtedly different.  If it can reproduce destroyed ancient art, I think we’re better for it.  And if it can act as a leveler, attracting more and more people to the arts, we’re better still.  If more people know art, understand it, and maybe even love it, they are more likely to protect it.