In February footage surfaced of the destruction of priceless museum artefacts by Islamic State after they took possession of the city of Mosul. In the wake of this devastation several organisations have emerged with the aim of saving cultural heritage at risk of being erased from history. Made up largely of volunteers, these activists are using the latest technologies to create 3D models of ancient artworks under threat from war in countries such as Syria and Iraq.
Project Mosul is perhaps the best known of these groups. It uses crowd-sourced images to virtually recreate artefacts using photogrammetry techniques. The plan is for these 3D representations to then be presented in an online museum where the data will be freely accessible to the public.
Little is known about the people dubbed by the media as ‘Digital Monuments Men’, a reference to the group who in 1943 were charged with the task of saving art stolen by the Nazis. Today’s Monuments Men are under no illusions about the dangers that they face, walking into some of the world’s biggest war zones often armed only with a smart phone.
One group calling itself the Committee for Shared Culture (CSC) has no website and no members prepared to see their names in print. One anonymous member, a former classics student told The National “I have to consider the safety of my family.”
So what do we know?
We know that these groups are made of people from all walks of life; students, academics, hackers and intelligence experts who share a passion for the preservation of the ancient world. These cultural guardians are in many cases local to the regions they are fighting to protect. We also know that their work extends beyond simply creating digital replicas of artifacts. They are also dedicated to tracking down stolen relics that are being sold online to fund terrorism. The CSC concentrates on hacking into terrorist networks. Their aim is to track those who are smuggling art that has been looted from the Middle East.
Meanwhile Project Mosul state that their purpose is to “preserve our shared memory and connections to our cultural heritage. While these 3D objects can never replace the artefacts that have been destroyed, they can serve as a starting point to keep the memory of these objects and their meaning alive.”