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In The Wake Of ISIS, 3-D Scans Are Saving Iraq’s Cultural Heritage

An international team of volunteers is working to digitally reconstruct destroyed artifacts. Could it also be the future of museums?

In The Wake Of ISIS, 3-D Scans Are Saving Iraq’s Cultural Heritage

When ISIS stormed through northern Iraq in February, it looted what was left of the Mosul Museum, which had already been raided during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The museum had been home to magnificent Assyrian sculptures as well archaeological finds from ancient Mesopotamia, an area often referred to as the cradle of civilization. In addition, ISIS members destroyed statues and monuments that had been standing in modern-day Iraq for some 2,000 years.

“The destruction of sites in the region is a tragedy and absolutely heart-breaking,” says Matthew Vincent, an archaeologist who has worked in neighboring Jordan.

Vincent is the co-founder of Project Mosul, which he and his research collaborator Chance Coughenour launched in order to try to salvage a piece of this history. The project’s goal is to digitally preserve the Mosul Museum’s heritage in the form of interactive 3-D scans, like the one below.

To create these 3-D scans, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry, a process of stitching together 2-D images that works similarly to human sight. Each one of our eyes perceives flat 2-D images and our brain uses the two images from each eye to create the 3-D view we perceive around us. Photogrammetry uses that same process, replacing our brains with computer algorithms and our eyes with hundreds or thousands of photographs. The photographs are mainly supplied by ordinary people who happen to have visited the museum or archaeological sites–locals, archaeologists, and tourists.

Eventually, Vincent hopes, they will be able to create a fully immersive online museum using interactive technologies. This future museum might involve a combination of 3-D models in Sketchfab with virtual reality displays like the Oculus Rift. Another option Vincent and Coughenour fantasize about are fully virtual “walk-in” rooms like UC San Diego’s StarCAVE.

“I think new technology makes it possible to preserve these objects despite having lost their physical reality,” says Vincent. “At the same time, allowing interactive displays that not only can show the artifact or monument, but give it the context of history can reshape what museums are. Museums can become livelier places through the mashup of 3-D models with linked data.”

Project Mosul is just getting its feet off the ground, but is already off to a promising start. The project involves a lot of crowdsourcing, including compiling photographs of the intact artifacts, cataloging them, and generating the actual 3-D models. There are hundreds of people who have signed up to be involved. Right now Vincent and Coughenour are working on making it easier for people to submit and catalog photographs, which doesn’t require any special technical skills.

Still, Vincent doesn’t lose sight of the immense devastation, even if we can bring some of it back with technology.

“We know it won’t ever equal the destroyed artifacts that are lost forever,” he says. “We continue to try and emphasize that this project is about preserving the memory of lost heritage. Nothing can replace the original. Yet, we hope that these 3-D surrogates could help to maintain the memory of that heritage, and can stand as a reminder.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.

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