Rochester Institute of Technology

Cultural Heritage Discovery and Preservation Through Imaging Science

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

Collections of handwritten artifacts of significance to cultural heritage greatly enhance the human community at all levels: local, regional, and global. However, many objects are not accessible due to fragility or their value may be unrecognized because of damage, including deliberate erasure, natural aging, and damage due to environmental factors. The goal of this project is to apply modern spectral imaging technologies to discover unrecognized text in handwritten objects, followed by transcription and widespread dissemination to assure survival and study of these writings. We plan a process of targeted collection assessment, equipment placement, and training of local individuals to use these technologies, with the goal of establishing and supporting a network of practitioners who will collaborate on dissemination projects to ensure local sustainability of the projects for maximum impact. This project is aligned with the UN SDG #11.4: “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

Problem Statement

In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the 2016 Global Colloquium of University Presidents on the “Preservation of Cultural Heritage: Challenges and Strategies,” “Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, plays a quantifiable and crucial part in the health of the human species. An attack on cultural heritage in one part of the world is an attack on us all… Preserving the world’s priceless cultural heritage is a task for all of us.” This epitomizes the need for methods and ventures to preserve and disseminate cultural heritage for its own protection. Fulfilling this goal to preserve cultural heritage writings at risk due to natural or human-caused processes is a daunting task, as mechanisms for damage are widespread and still emerging; well-known examples include the attempted destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu by Al Qaeda in 2012 and the accidental demolition by fire of artifacts at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. In addition, the age and use history of many handwritten manuscripts renders them at additional risk to damage by natural degradation and by climate change. It is vitally important and urgent to copy, transcribe, and disseminate this heritage to multiple sites to guarantee its preservation. Fortunately, imaging and data storage technologies for recording and revealing words in cultural heritage are now available to be applied to this task. The primary urgent needs are vision and funding. Our team can fulfill the former requirement, and we are hopeful that the MacArthur Foundation will supply the latter.

Solution Overview

We propose to place multispectral imaging systems to image handwritten manuscripts at locations with both known and as-yet-undetermined cultural heritage value. We plan to start with locations already familiar to the team and yet not sufficiently studied: the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the Republic of Croatia, the Republic of Georgia, northern Italy, and India. The goal is to extend the effort to neighboring venues over the course of the project. At each location, we will establish infrastructure (including the necessary computer hardware to collect imagery and software to process it) as well as identify and supply training to local personnel for the imaging and processing tasks. Based on our experience in previous projects, this plan will attract attention from the academic community worldwide as well as from regional entities and local communities. Though the most-obvious benefits will be local to small repositories, this is the type of project that is well-regarded by news organizations, which will be interested in broadcasting the stories more widely.There also is need for both infrastructure and training in more established repositories, who have heard of the capability but need assistance getting started. For example, team members are currently working with Cambridge University Library and the University of Athens to establish such facilities. We anticipate that, once established, these organizations would be interested in participating in the larger effort. These synergistic efforts suggest that the benefits of the project will last longer than the five-year frame.

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Project Funders

  • Arcadia Fund (U.K.)

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