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Preserving Cultural Heritage Sites Digitally: CyArk to Save Rushmore Faces for Posterity
Posted On September 14, 2009

These days most people have probably already forgotten about the 2001 destruction of Afghanistan's Buddhas of Bamiyan, 2,000 year old works of art that included the world's tallest Buddha. Despite pleas from countries across the globe for the preservation of this historic site, it was blown up by the Taliban. This stuck with Ben Kacyra, inventor of a laser-mapping device that scans three-dimensional objects. Then in 2003, an earthquake destroyed the ancient mud city of Bam, Iran, and Kacyra was spurred into action. He decided to start a pilot program that would use the technology he had created to take detailed scans of cultural heritage sites and preserve them for posterity, right down to the smallest detail-and CyArk was born. Now, as part of the organization's CyArk 500, the team will be tackling one of America's most recognizable and vulnerable landmarks: Mount Rushmore. Work is set to begin in mid-September, but it has been a long time in the making.

The CyArk 500 is an effort to digitally preserve 500 sites in 5 years. "We've been in communication with the park for a while," says CyArk's director of programs, Elizabeth Lee, about the Rushmore project. "They had a need to carefully monitor [the mountain]." Still, a plan had not quite materialized. It wasn't until a trip to Scotland, however, that CyArk was able to find a way to move forward with the American project. CyArk's work caught the attention of Michael Russell, the Scottish minister of culture, external affairs, and the constitution at a Digital Documentation conference. The Scottish government soon committed to digitally preserving its five major heritage sites, as well as five international sites, including Mount Rushmore.

The pilot program started in 2003 but, "the first 3 years were about figuring out the process," says Lee. They had Kacyra's machine-which uses pulsed lasers to scan thousands of points per second and create a digital image-but it had only been used in an industrial setting. "For the heritage side of things, we've had to develop a complete process around the technology," Lee explains.

Kacyra sold his machine in 2001-each one costs about $100,000-so the technology is not unique to CyArk. However, Lee says the process is unique. In what it calls the Total Process for Digital Preservation, the organization uses a combination of 3D scans, traditional survey techniques, and new photographic processes to put together its final renderings. Once the details were worked out, Lee says, CyArk realized "the products we're creating do have applications beyond preservation." That is where comes in.

On the website, users can see the digital renderings of the sites that CyArk has already preserved. The organization has made lesson plans available for teachers as well. While the detailed images of historic sites have obvious applications in social studies or history classrooms, Lee says the CyArk team strives to make the lesson plans as cross-disciplinary as possible so that the "deliverables" can be used to teach math or science in new and more exciting ways.

Teachers aren't the only ones with access to the content created for the website, though. Registration is free, and as long as users agree not to use the content for commercial reasons (CyArk is a nonprofit), everyone is welcome to explore. Users can see the intricate 3D drawings in more familiar formats such as CAD drawings, JPEG images, and QuickTime videos.

Much of what CyArk does, including the work on the Mount Rushmore project, is made possible through working with partners. Sending teams of workers to cultural heritage sites across the globe is expensive, so the organization enlists the help of individuals, institutions, and governments. For instance, the Scottish commitment to help preserve 10 sites is really an in-kind donation. The Scots will be doing the work to preserve their own sites. "There are lots of companies using the technology on the industrial side who can do the work for the cultural heritage side," Lee explains.

It's a good thing that there is already a team of partners for CyArk to rely on, because the commitment to preserve 500 sites over the next 5 years is no small feat. Lee says the time it takes to make a complete scan depends on everything from the size of a site to the size of the team. A small project could take hours, and big ones-such as the scanning of the ancient city of Merv-can take weeks. The average project, though, translates to about a week in the field. Time is really spent creating the deliverables for the website.

Expertise isn't the only thing volunteers can donate. Lee says that people can help sponsor projects and that CyArk is working on setting up themed groups to make sponsorship easier through the "Contribute" section on the website. The Mount Rushmore project will be part of the "Scotland 10" theme. Other potential themes could center on sites such as Jewish synagogues, California missions, or the Silk Road, allowing people to contribute money to specific projects that interest them. Lee also says that much of the office work at CyArk is done by volunteers, who help with the day-to-day administration of the organization.

Lee also says that the organization is looking for feedback from teachers who are using CyArk's deliverables in the classroom. "We haven't quite established a great arena for people to tell us how they're using things. ... That's something we want more of."

Going forward, CyArk will continue to choose the sites for the 500, which Lee says is an "on-going process." Sites such as Mount Rushmore, which are so exposed to the elements, are obvious choices for CyArk. There are countless historical sites around the world, though, which makes the task of narrowing them down to 500 a task in itself. She says, "What we have found is that there are certain sites we'll definitely want to make part of the list ... but there are so many sites out there we don't want to lock those down yet."

Theresa Cramer is editor, EContent and Intranets.

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