We all know that digital technologies are breaking down silos in our daily lives, helping us make connections we might not have made otherwise. But I have recently been reminded that this is also true in sectors like cultural heritage, where centuries-old lines between disciplines are being blurred - and a new Declaration of Cooperation on advancing the digitisation of cultural heritage should bring benefits across many sectors.

If we look back in history, art has always used innovative thinking and the latest technologies. Leonardo da Vinci invested time and money in understanding, analysing and inventing a wide range of things, from paint pigments to new musical instruments. Similarly, now we are able to witness brilliant exhibitions using cutting edge virtual and augmented reality, preservation and conservation digital tools relying on 3D modelling, and online access facilitating engagement from wider audiences.

But cultural heritage in not a field untouched by challenges. Europe’s rich heritage faces many risks from earthquakes, floods, and pollution, not to mention vandalism, theft, and deterioration over time. These dangers mean there is also an urgent need to make the most of digital technologies to record, document and preserve Europe’s cultural heritage and make it accessible online to European citizens.

Picking up the pieces using 3D modelling

Damaged terracotta figure of praying woman
The Madonna of Pietranico during its reconstruction.

The earthquake of 2009 that struck L'Aquila in the region of Abruzzo, central Italy, devastated people’s lives and destroyed their homes – and also hit historic buildings, sculptures, and art. As a result, the Madonna of Pietranico, a Renaissance terracotta statue, was severely damaged, broken into many pieces. Its restoration was tackled by the European 3DCOFORM project together with the Cultural Heritage Superintendent of the Abruzzo region and other partners. The accuracy of 3D scanning and the processing and visualization tools developed by the project allowed the many broken remains to be virtually pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle: this reduced the need to handle them physically, preventing further potential damage and making it easier to evaluate different reassembly options. Conservators were able to then undertake the difficult task of rebuilding the statue of the Madonna and repairing its surface. Working together, conservators and computer scientists achieved a remarkable restoration.

This is a great example of how a modern restoration project can be planned and implemented with the use of 3D scanning, geometric processing, virtual reassembly, visual analysis and many other emerging technologies. In the wake of the tragic earthquake, the outcome of this project proved how important collaboration between partners with very different backgrounds is, and how effective and practical the application of new technology solutions can be for the preservation and conservation of cultural heritage.

Civilisations of the past brought back to life

Divers filming sea bed
An augmented reality system developed by the EU-funded i-MareCulture project.

Technology not only helps to restore lost heritage, but can also do wonders in recreating it. For instance, the extraordinary i-MareCulture project helps the public to experience underwater archaeology: you can visit a Roman villa, buried for centuries in the Mediterranean Sea, through virtual reality and augmented reality. The content it has developed will also be used to create so-called serious (educational) games with 3D libraries of ships and amphorae, and excavation games. Imagine how excited and interested our schoolchildren would be to learn more about their heritage if this kind of content was more widely available! I enjoyed watching this short documentary on how new technologies are used in the i-MareCulture project to showcase underwater cultural heritage.

There are many more ways that technology can be put at the service of heritage: the Time Machine project, for instance, will help to process millions of historical documents, paintings, landscapes, monuments and more, in order to build a large-scale historical simulator mapping 2000 years of European history. This could revolutionise the tourism industry by creating new experiences at the point where the digital and physical worlds intersect. The project will also give new “superpowers” to social science and humanities researchers: they will be able to use these immersive and virtual reality interfaces as historical “search engines” to navigate two millennia of European history.

A commitment to bringing culture and digital closer

The potential of digital technologies to help preserve and showcase our cultural heritage makes me all the more enthusiastic about the third DG Connect Digital Day, where 23 European countries sign a Declaration of Cooperation on advancing the digitisation of cultural heritage. Currently, approximately only 10% of Europe’s cultural heritage has been digitised, and digitised resources still lack visibility, especially across national boundaries. This Declaration therefore invites Member States to pursue progress together in key areas where synergies with digital technologies can really make an impact.

The declaration is underpinned by a strong belief that the EU’s cultural heritage sector must not lag behind in innovation and technology applications. The future of the sector will be a digital one, founded on emerging technologies, interoperability and standards, and partnerships and collaboration, and it is down to us to provide the right support for it.

Update: you can find out more about the Declaration of Cooperation here.