Ahead of World Heritage Day (April 18), Divya J Shekhar looks at how to leverage need-of-the-hour technologies even as conservationists race against time to document, restore and maintain the remaining links to our past

When the British established the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, the English official in charge of supervising protected structures in Karnataka worked out of Madras. Travelling for site supervision once a year, he would give written notes to local on-site office.

Cut to 2017. Conservation experts can now document and investigate built and intangible heritage through high-dynamic image ranging, use 3-D laser scanning and imaging and launch unmanned aerial vehicles to cover more area with less money, time and manpower. Conservationists are racing against time. Cultural heritage having been forgotten in the race for development, documentation, reparation and maintenance of what remains has become imperative.

Why Technology in Heritage Conservation is Important

Digitisation fosters better collaborations with conservation experts, archaeologists, art historians and government officials, as it saves on time, ensures speedier and accurate deployment of resources and facilitates access to information. In the long run, tech-driven restoration activities boosts tourism and increases socioeconomic development

Technologies with Scope of Widespread Adoption

A myriad technologies are available for various types and scales of heritage conservation projects. A few common ones that can be more frequently adopted here are as follows:

  • Reflectance Transformation Imaging: Captures shapes and full-colour digital images with accuracy, flexibility and cost-effectiveness.
  • Photogrammetry: Helps determine mathematical measurements and 3D geometric data from overlapping images.
  • LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging): The space archaeology remotesensing technology measures distance by illuminating a target with laser and analysing the reflected light.
  • Virtual Reality: Virtual reality headsets in museums can make traditional viewing of artefacts more appealing for the young
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles: These are seeing wider acceptance at archaeological sites. Drones help to cover more area with great cost-effectiveness.

According to Sarath Chandra of the Deccan Heritage Foundation, technology adoption faces the following challenges:

  • Government departments are not well-equipped to handle technology. There is no capacity-building and training of officials on how and why technology should be adopted.
  • Money is the last criterion. There are enough funds available. However, most funds are wasted in wrong planning. Even if funds are allocated, they need to be implemented on-ground on a priority basis.
  • Tourism is a byproduct of heritage. So revenue from the tourism department should be invested in conservation projects.

Most heritage sites and structures are so fragile that human intervention could do more harm than good. Take the recent dredging of the Hosakerehalli Lake. One of two sluice gates — which experts believe predates the Kempe Gowda period — that the excavator unearthed was damage beyond repair. Had modern technology been deployed before the excavation, the medieval treasure could have been saved in its entirety.

This, while institutions in Bengaluru are employing technology in a big way for documentation and preservation.

“A staggering amount of effort is needed to preserve physical heritage structures. So it is only natural that India, especially IT city Bengaluru, is exploring digitisation of cultural heritage in a bigger way,” said Sharada Srinivasan, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). She is a member of the ongoing Digital Hampi project, which is part of the Indian Digital Heritage (IDH) Project commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology. “There are attempts to flag initiatives bringing together leading figures in software with stakeholders in culture, with government support.”

Among such efforts is the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology that is acquiring equipment and expertise to undertake laser scanning of monuments. Then there is NIAS’s project of using geographic information system and remote sensing technologies to create a database of Karnataka’s archaeological structures.

In January, the team discovered remains of Tipu Sultan’s Lalbagh Palace in Srirangapatna that was covered with thick vegetation. The technology involved juxtaposing old maps with recent satellite images. “The report has been submitted to the Kannada and Culture Department, Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage and the chief secretary. We have not heard from the government on this,” ” said Mukund Rao, member-secretary, Karnataka Knowledge Commission, adding, “Perhaps, the use of such technology in agriculture or drought management may get more importance.”

Conservation experts agree that heritage preservation is not yet a priority for the government even though they are waking up to the need. The digital interplay is just the tip of the iceberg, observed Dr Vijay Chandru, who heads the digital heritage technology wing at the city-based International Institute for Art, Culture and Democracy. He is now creating an online archive or “knowledge bank” that digitally documents heritage sites and their folklore as part of the IDH project. “Most government departments are ill-equipped to handle digital technologies. Most of them are however, eager to partner with organizations and projects like IDH which can complement their efforts”, he said. “The Archeological Survey of India, for instance, was supportive and provided the IDH investigators with access to the monuments at Hampi and other Vijayanagara sites like Lepakshi. Their own documentation and websites however, do not as yet reflect this new expression of heritage preservation and enhancement with digital technologies.”

An assistant archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India Bengaluru Circle admitted that the department still relies only on conventional craftsmanship for excavations and conservations. According to him, there is just no better way. “However, we do collaborate with organisations like Isro for digital mapping of structures,” he said.

Experts said on-ground headway can only be made when institutions mandated to protect heritage sites take the first step. “However, there is no willingness, capacity-building or training among officials. No wonder the state-of-the-art technology procured ends up lying among cobwebs in their offices,” said Sarath Chandra, conservation project coordinator for India, Deccan Heritage Foundation (DHF).

Heritage preservation is a coin with two sides. The other end of the story involves urban local bodies and individuals who explore innovations to increase people’s interaction with heritage on a day-to-day basis. “Bengaluru has a large migrant population unaware of its heritage. It is essential to sensitise them of the city’s past,” said Rachel Lee and Anne-Katrin Fenk, urban architects from Germany who have developed an augmented reality-based app Timescape Bengaluru.

Downloading the app, one can access photos, videos and written information about any heritage structure just by pointing towards it. The duo hope that it would fuel the civic activism of the city that is becoming increasingly sensitive towards its waning heritage. “Conservation has to be more participative,” they said.

Even though it is done by isolated pockets of individuals at different levels, widespread technology usage in heritage is not a far-fetched idea, said DHF’s Chandra. “The need of the hour is to join hands with conservation experts and bridge the gap between government departments. The idea is not to see heritage as an isolated antiquity in a glass case but one whose preservation will aid socio-economic development of our community.”