The digital preservation of Lady Liberty

FRAMINGHAM (11/18/2003) - When 22nd century conservators need to clean or patch the Statue of Liberty, they'll have a wealth of details to draw on -- provided they can access the data and make heads or tails of their predecessors' notes on the monument's condition and the work done on it.

The plundering of ancient Mesopotamian sites after the United States's invasion of Iraq brought the issue of cultural preservation to the fore. It turns out that IT tools, from websites that give virtual tours of important landscapes to digital archiving technologies, are valuable in efforts to document objects and sites of cultural significance. But the same tools that help researchers now may not leave a lasting record. Because while cryptic notes about relics can be puzzled over for as long as the paper holds up, information that winds up on a software or media format that has a limited shelf life might as well be sealed in a long-lost tomb.

"It's almost to the point that we're not quite sure what we need to know (in the future), so we're going to collect as much of this data as we can, extremely precisely," says Stephen Spaulding, northeast regional chief of the National Park Service's architectural preservation division.

Even with this long-term uncertainty, the Web has become a popular vehicle for preservation, as high-profile sites dedicated to Iraqi heritage, Roman ruins, Japanese temples, even Michelangelo's David, attest.

The most advanced websites represent an evolutionary leap beyond the rough assemblages of photos, video clips, rudimentary computer animation and field notes that typified early attempts at assigning computers to the job of preservation. They combine detailed scientific, historical and cultural information with advanced imaging, virtual reality tours and collaboration tools.

The National Park Service digitally archives and disseminates information on many of its sites, and the United Nations' agency Unesco last year launched a website (www.virtualworldheritage.org) to foster the conservation of the U.N.'s 754 World Heritage sites.

But websites are just part of the picture. Virtual preservation, broadly defined, is any digital documentation effort intended to preserve natural and man-made cultural heritage. The field encompasses everything from national park websites and museum exhibits to multimedia hubs for archaeological digs. It involves the use of digital communications and collaboration technologies that connect conservateurs.

The National Park Service last year took precise measurements of some iconic American monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, using 3-D laser scanners adapted from the energy and engineering industries. They also recorded and digitally archived ambient temperature, moisture levels, wind direction and speed, and other conditions affecting the monuments.

Environmental data tracked While this data might help in the reconstruction of a damaged monument -- the project was widely reported as a response to the threat of terrorism -- the goals include maintenance and education.

"We want to gather sufficient and precise data on the environmental performance of the (Statue of Liberty's copper) skin, so a hundred years down the line they're able to minimize erosion of the copper," Spaulding says. Proponents point out that virtual preservation has the potential to keep the public from "loving" sites to death. Web presentations, if they cut traffic at the actual sites, can reduce damage from the trampling, fingering and breathing of visitors.

But preservationists are also holding their breath that today's digital presentations will last until tomorrow.

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