THE CHALLENGES OF RECREATING THE PAST THROUGH DIGITISATION

In today’s world,  the  ubiquitous destruction  and looting of cultural heritage sites are the consequences of human conflict and poverty . The digital reconstruction of ancient structures and artefacts plays a crucial role in the conservation,  preservation and recording of our past .

In the article Should museums be recreating the past by  Mark Sinclair, he gives a number of positive examples about the recording of cultural heritage objects.  The part I found really interesting is the section on the huge casts of Trajan’s column which are held in the V&A Museum.  These  casts were taken in the 1860s and are understood to be in a better state of preservation than the original in Rome, due to pollution and weather erosion.  It is worthy to note that the details of the casts have survived better than on the original, hence being a valuable historical record in itself (Sinclair 4). The  empirical proof that casting was successful in the recreation of the iconographic narrative on Trajan’s column only solidifies the pro-argument.

The replication of  artefacts through  3D scanning and printing is a contentious area.

Source: www.theguardian.com
Source: www.theguardian.com

With the vast growth of digital technology, and the ambiguity of copyright/ownership laws, it is getting progressively harder to stop such activities being committed.  There are also those who disparage  computer technology as a whole, with the negative connotation such as “technological fetishism” being used to throw scorn on  Western capitalistic  consumerism (Huggett 82).  On reflection, one can construe a sense of logic from Huggett’s article in terms of cost and the accessibility of this technology and its software, but it is hard to deny that digital technology has brought mankind to another level in all fields and disciplines.

When thinking about the recreation of the past through digitisation, it is difficult to comprehend this experience due to the immateriality of the digital world.  This world that is devoid of any substance we can touch or  smell is inconceivably  weird (Jeffrey 145).  For some people, this digital experience is disengaging  and  devoid of any physical sensation, moreover, it does not hold the same auratic feeling, that authentic  museum artefacts emanate.  Authentic artefacts, such as  bronze coins  go through an aging process, where they develop a patina.  In time, this patina  becomes tarnished and coloured by oxidisation,  due to the chemical composition in the soil. This authenticity is hard to replicate and does not seem to trigger the same response whilst experiencing a digital version of the same artefact.   Jeffrey argues that this aura can indeed migrate from the original artefacts to their digital or physical reproductions by “becoming part of the ongoing biography of the original” and also depending on “how good or bad the reproduction is” (Jeffrey 148).   In my view, I do not think that one can replicate the aura surrounding an ancient monument or artefact.  All ancient objects have a biography, one could choose the Parthenon Marbles as an example.  These sculptures have such an important historical pedigree.  They were sculpted during the Periclean building program in the 5th century B.C.E and were housed inside the famous Parthenon.  In my opinion, I think it would be impossible to experience the same level of euphoria with a digitised scan of the Parthenon or of any ancient artefact.

I do believe that museums should recreate the past through digitisation.  One cannot argue that digitisation is progressive and beneficial to humanities in relation to conservation and preservation.  In my opinion, visitors to a museum cannot have an auratic experience through conceptualisation alone.  Digitisation can be used in conjunction with the authentic artefacts to create an enhanced experience.

Bibliography

Jeffrey, Stuart.  “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation”. Open Archaeology , 2015, pp. 144-152, https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/opar.2014.1.issue-1/opar-2015-0008/opar-2015-0008.xml.  Accessed on 24 October 2016.

Huggett, J. “Archaeology and the new technological fetishism”. Archeologia and Calcolatori, 2004, 15, pp. 81-92,  http://soi.cnr.it/archcalc/indice/PDF15/05_Hugget.  Accessed on 23 October 2016.

Sinclair, Mark. “Should museums be recreating the past?”.  Creative Reviewhttps://www.creativereview.co.uk/should-museums-be-recreating-the-past/. Accessed on 25 October 2016.

2 thoughts on “THE CHALLENGES OF RECREATING THE PAST THROUGH DIGITISATION”

  1. While trying to evaluate the comparison between original artefacts (authentic) and digital replicas (inauthentic) in your argument corresponding to authentic and inauthentic experience respectively, I found myself quite disagree with the superiority of the former due to its materiality to be regarded as a precondition for what you called as “euphoria” through such authentic experience. Arguing authenticity of historical artefacts and sites is not a static concept but ever-dependent on the context that may be recalled (see discussion on authenticity in Lowenthal, 1999), I tend to believe the ‘aura’ of digital replicas and the experience of perceiving it can be acquired through a new biography of each object/site, not necessarily resulting from the comparison with the original one.

    It may well be true that the dimension of authenticity in cultural objects and sites is considered to be questioned each time when digitization is a means of recording the past and therefore how the experience of heritage is perceived. Trying to pinpoint how authenticity is experienced and negotiated, Siân Jones concludes that “authenticity is not simply a facet of the internal essence of discrete isolated entities…but rather networks of relationships between people, places, things” (Jones, 2010). Based on this approach, digital reconstruction of heritage, lacking in material qualities or regenerated in a new material through 3d printing, invokes a new context of authenticity through the different means by which its information is recorded and reproduced. A question apparently arises thus is not how to replicate the authenticity triggering the same response whilst experiencing a digital version as you stated, but rather how to redefine an understanding the scale that lies in the digital reconstruction itself.

    Additionally, another point of your argument is that authenticity is accompanied by an aging process, characteristic that augments the auratic quality due to its value, while it is a process that is absent in digital form where the replica tend to be ageless. Considering this sense of authentic experience emanating from the museum-making consideration of what real is, your observation coincides with the Benjamin’s conception of uniqueness of aura. Contrary to this belief, in my point of view, this quality can be enhanced by digital replications and visualizations, taking into consideration a creative process that includes a meaning-making procedure and ‘networks of relationships’ that Jones refers to and instead of an inert display interacts with its surrounding. “Here the past is at the service of the object reclaimed through its digital counterpart” Fiona Cameron points out when considering such interactions(2007). Such retrieval therefore, may revise the museum authority to authenticate the experience of heritage providing a new relational process, connecting the reconstruction of heritage with a subjective conception of it.

    Referenced works:

    Cameron, Fiona, and Sarah Kenderdine. “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects—Traditional Concerns, New Discourses” Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007. Print. p. 57.

    Jones, Siân. 2010. “Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves.” Journal of Material Culture 15(2):181-203.

    Lowenthal, David. “Authenticity: Rock of faith or quicksand quagmire?.”
    The Getty Conservation Institute newsletter, vol. 14, no. 3, 1999, pp. 5-8 Available at: http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/pdf/v14n3.pdf, Accessed on: 04 November 2016.

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