Digitisation of cultural assets: Preserving and creating something new

Museums, archives, libraries and media libraries all have cultural assets and collections of inestimable value. Preserving these for posterity has become the task of numerous projects and institutions. Digitally accessible cultural heritage can thus be experienced in a location-independent, barrier-free and multi-layered way. For the memory institutions, this opens up the possibility of becoming more visible internationally and creating completely new connections - not only within the different cultural fields, but also to science. 

I still remember very well the afternoon of 3 March 2009, when the sirens of the emergency vehicles rumbled endlessly along the Innere Kanalstraße in Cologne. It quickly became clear: the city archive had collapsed. In addition to the human tragedy and loss that the day meant for the two victims of this event and their families, Cologne was suddenly confronted with the fact that the archived evidence of its long history could probably be gone forever. Today we know: about 30 shelf kilometres of archival material were buried under the collapsed building within a few seconds. It is currently assumed that the recovery of the rescued goods will take another 30 years.

This example shows how important and useful it is to use digital technology to preserve our cultural assets. While this cannot save physical objects themselves, should they be subject to complete destruction. But by recording them digitally as completely as possible, at least the knowledge about them and their design is not lost. The knowledge of this is by no means new, nor is the technology itself. More often, however, there is a lack of the necessary competence or human and financial resources within the institutions to realise the extensive digitisation of objects with cultural value - be it internally or through external service providers. 

Which analogue cultural assets are being digitised - and how?

The German Research Foundation (DFG) made a start in 1997 with the digitisation of book collections. In the meantime, in addition to books and period or manuscripts, maps, pictures, exhibits, film and audio documents or even sculptures are also digitally curated. These images can be enriched with meta and other data and read out in such a way that they take on an extended mode of action or function in the digital. In practice, this means, for example, that text-based digital copies can be made accessible for full-text machine searches, or that a replica can be made for the sculpture recreated in 3-D, including the associated metadata on the material used - because, for example, the original is too fragile or light-sensitive for an exhibition. 

While the digitisation of cultural assets initially meant scanning documents and storing them digitally, the possibilities and methods now go much further. In addition to various scanner techniques, digital cameras, drones, GSP-controlled systems and AI are being used. 

Digitised cultural property serves a variety of purposes

However, the creation of so-called digital copies by no means exclusively serves to protect against possible destruction of the original. In fact, there are many other aspects to creating digital images. 

One is the digital presentation of objects for which there is no suitable physical space. Digital copies can also be used to realise virtual exhibitions whose thematically related exhibits could never be displayed together in one place in the real world. This opens up new possibilities and opportunities for mediation. 

The digital twins can also help to draw attention to stolen cultural assets. With an app developed by the Fraunhofer Institute, for example, investigating authorities and customs will in future be able to recognise whether archaeological objects are possibly stolen goods. It is quite simple to use: the object in question is photographed with a smartphone from several perspectives and the images are then compared with the digital data in a database using an AI process. The app called KIKu then immediately provides further information about the object in question and sends a message if the cultural object is reported as stolen. This is also an interesting aspect for an insurer.  

However, making extended and comprehensive information about a cultural asset available online also means presenting objects outside their usual perspective, bringing them into new contexts, creating new kinds of art experiences that, at best, bring people back to cultural sites. A fine example of the latter is the immersive exhibition experience "Monet's Garden", which can be experienced at three different locations until 18 August 2022. 

Private and public initiatives as promoters

One of the best-known examples of how digitised material can be used online to create thematic virtual exhibitions is the web application Google Arts & Culture, which is also available as an app. The aim here is to create a new understanding of the world and the people of other countries by means of a new kind of connection between art in virtual space. See, learn and discover is the guiding principle of the platform, on which everything can be experienced in 360 degrees or by zoom-in. The digital journey into the world of art can be designed by keyword entry, timeline or even colour selection. Afterwards - in keeping with the spirit of modern digital communication - the personal finds can also be shared with the world using the implemented share function. Well-known German institutions represented here with collections: the National Museums in Berlin. Thousands of objects, many exhibitions as well as short stories, virtual reality tours, expeditions, gigapixels or even streetviews of the respective sites with their permanent exhibitions are presented there on their own portal page

The German National Library has also realised its own virtual exhibitions with digitised exhibits from its collections - under the digital umbrella of the cooperative project German Digital Library (DDB). This is intended to give everyone comprehensive access to Germany's cultural and scientific heritage. According to its own information, "millions of objects from all cultural sectors and all genres can already be researched free of charge via the DDB's search function". Other projects supported by the DBB are the German Newspaper Portal, which has been launched in 2021, with contemporary testimonies from the years 1671 to 1950, and the Archive Portal D with information on 220 archives from all over Germany and more than 25 million objects. 

Some beacons, but little overarching structure

One example of the consistent collection and publication of digitised cultural assets at the federal state level is the digital state archive APERTUS, which was launched in 2021: since then, the written cultural assets of Rhineland-Palatinate can be accessed worldwide online.

Europeana, initiated by the EU, operates at the European level. More than 3,000 cultural institutions have participated so far. However, the institutions themselves decide which objects are digitised and displayed there. The digitised objects are not stored there either, but remain in the institutions' networks. It is therefore merely a digital presentation platform with the contextual information provided according to a low-threshold metadata standard and a small photo. The EU describes its own claim for the platform as follows: "We develop expertise, tools and guidelines to harness digital transformation and foster partnerships that promote innovation." Thus, the homepage also features projects to participate in. 

So all is well with the digitisation of cultural assets?

The creation of digital cultural assets helps to bring cultural artefacts into a whole new context and thus also to create interdisciplinary connections. For this to succeed, however, one thing is a prerequisite: open and free access to data. In the case of the Cologne City Archive mentioned at the beginning, for example, it is the case that some digital copies from the digital Historical Archive Cologne can no longer be viewed online. The reason: "On 01.03.2018, the Copyright Knowledge Society Act (UrhWissG) came into force. [....] The newly inserted copyright restrictions for archives in § 61f do not allow unpublished works for which the using archive has not acquired any rights of use to be placed online or transmitted digitally. Since at the same time the courts assume the existence of copyrights even in the case of a low 'level of creation' of corresponding works, all files of the archive in which corresponding copyright works could exist would have to be completely sifted through before publication via the internet. This cannot be done with the existing staff."

Another point on the subject of digitised material that should be given more attention: Digitally deposited cultural treasures may empty shelves, but technological progress and ever-changing electronic standards could in turn lead to the loss of digital images. Who knows whether yesterday's data carriers will actually still be readable tomorrow. At this point, there is simply a lack of reliable experience.

In addition, it should be increasingly ensured within the framework of standards that the flood of information on the digital data is always structured and stored in such a way that it does not get lost in the masses at some point. Sustainability is thus becoming a major challenge for a successful digitisation strategy for cultural assets.

And although digitisation helps to keep cultural assets that are particularly worthy of protection "available" so that they cannot be damaged or destroyed unintentionally, it must also be clear that these digital copies should never replace the storage of the originals.

Digitally made available cultural assets thus achieve one thing above all: they are made permanently accessible to a larger public and thus support cultural participation for all. In my view, the digitisation of cultural assets should therefore be regarded as a publicly funded task in its basic features. Why this approach is important is shown in a frightening way by the current situation in Ukraine, where not only human lives and infrastructures are being destroyed and devastated. Cultural heritage is also increasingly falling victim to the conflict, while a group of around 1,300 experts is trying to identify and archive endangered websites, digital content and data in Ukrainian cultural institutions. Unfortunately, even digital copies offer no guarantee of preservation

Text: Alexa Brandt

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