Protecting Cultural Heritage in a Dynamic and Unpredictable World

June 27, 2019

The towering stone statues of Easter Island evoke a sense of wonder and awe for the 100,000 visitors who flock to the remote Pacific Island every year.  But for those who live on the island, Rapa Nui as it's known locally, the statues are much more than a tourist destination. The statues represent their ancestors and are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased erosion as the island grapples with climate change.  “Climate change is one of the major causes of alteration of these sites.” says Daniela Meza Marchant - Head of conservation, Ma'u Henua, the indigenous group responsible for the park. “The sites need to be maintained so that my son will be able to know these places that represent his culture."

Rapa Nui is not alone. Cultural heritage sites around the world are facing unprecedented risks from climate change, natural disasters and armed conflict. The stewards of our cultural heritage are given the daunting task of maintaining these structures in a dynamic and unpredictable world, often without sufficient data to make informed decisions about the future of the sites. CyArk works directly with local stakeholders to demonstrate the power of 3D documentation to improve efficiency and decision making in standard conservation tasks, from condition assessment and ongoing monitoring, to post-disaster documentation and recovery. We believe this can greatly assist in the task of preserving the physical structures today, as well as provide a digital record that can be shared with the world and stored for posterity.

In 2017, CyArk traveled to Rapa Nui in order to record several at-risk monuments using a variety of 3D recording technologies including LiDAR, photogrammetry and drone imagery to produce an accurate surface model. The resulting data was provided to Ma'u Henua and the Chilean Monuments Commission in order to inform their work to manage the heritage of the island.  Our work at Rapa Nui would not have been possible without the support of our sustaining partner Iron Mountain.  Our partnership, now in its 7th year, developed from a shared interest and a strong alignment between CyArk’s mission and Iron Mountain’s core business.  This has resulted in a mutually beneficial corporate social responsibility partnership which leverages expertise in both organizations to create positive, measurable impacts and to tell great stories about the work we are doing together.  

Since CyArk’s founding in 2003, we have worked on hundreds of projects, demonstrating the potential of 3D documentation technologies to transform the way cultural heritage is managed. We have built on these projects to develop new capacity building programs for heritage professionals in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Armenia,  and Syria, training the next generation of cultural stewards with the aim of sustained adoption of these techniques as part of their everyday workflows. Our work at Rapa Nui has empowered the local stewards and indigenous community with new methods and technologies to better manage these fragile resources.

“The use of drones or scanners, as well as photography and photogrammetry provides us with exact 3D models of these sites which we can use to make decisions around which places require immediate intervention in the short term,” says Merahi Atam, Lead Archaeologist Chilean Monuments Commission.

 The resulting data from CyArk’s projects and capacity building programs not only has the power to assist in short-term conservation and restoration of the sites, but it can also act as a valuable resource for future study, either in a post-disaster recovery scenario or to provide virtual access for research and study of the monuments.  In 2018, we launched the Open Heritage 3D portal in order to make this data available to a broader community, providing access to source 3D data of over 70 sites in our archive. These datasets are available for research and non-commercial use, and have been downloaded thousands of times since the launch of the initiative. This year, we expanded the project with the formation of the Open Heritage Alliance - an organization made up of members with a common goal of sharing their datasets with the world. Members of the Alliance include Historic Environment Scotland - the government entity responsible for the region's cultural heritage which has adopted 3D documentation as a core part of their work flow. With the expansion of the Alliance in the coming years, we see the Open Heritage project becoming the canonical source for 3D cultural heritage data and a tremendous digital archive of the world’s history and monumental architecture.

Our vision is to see these monuments physically stand the test of time by equipping heritage managers with the skills needed to harness technology for improved efficiency and decision making. With the widespread adoption of these methods by heritage organizations around the world, this will give rise to a vast library of 3D cultural data: an index of the world’s built heritage that educators and researchers can draw upon for inspiration and knowledge building.