The Digitization of Destruction: Critical Approaches to Digital Heritage Rescue

Author: ORCID icon
Wolfe, Hannah, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Reilly, Lisa, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Crane, Sheila, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Kondyli, Fotini, Department of Art, University of Virginia


Over the past ten years, new advances in technology have offered promising solutions for preserving, reconstructing, and restoring historical monuments, that are endangered or have been destroyed. When universally significant monuments, best understood within this context as cultural heritage, are threatened or damaged, specialists increasingly look to find solutions through digital methods. Groundbreaking heritage technologies––particularly laser scanning and 3D modeling technologies––have inspired the rapid growth of digital and cyber rescue archaeology, a new field that uses digital tools to further archaeological research, and has increasingly focused on endangered and destroyed heritage. Universities, archaeological faculties, and scholars have launched digital labs and non-profit organizations that are dedicated to protecting threatened and destroyed heritage through digital archaeology. Yet until very recently, these new approaches have prompted little, if any, critical reflection.

In this paper I present three case studies of destroyed and/or damaged cultural heritage sites that have been the focus of such digital heritage initiatives: the Arch of Triumph from the Syrian city of Palmyra, the Buddhas of Bamiyan from Afghanistan, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame from Paris. The aim of this paper is twofold. First, I consider the various ways in which digital heritage reveals key ethical issues of our time. Second, I suggest one approach to address these issues through creating better practices for the digital heritage field. Through this work I hope to emphasize how digital heritage reflects the ontologies and epistemologies that underlie heritage politics, and contribute to an understanding of the value of meaningfully considered digital heritage.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Digital Heritage, Digital Archaeology, Preservation, Cultural Heritage, Digital Colonialism
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