Cultural Heritage

How can digitisation combat the theft of cultural heritage?

IS in Syria and Iraq and the activities of criminal organisations and cultural racketeers, has resulted in cultural heritage across the Middle East region being at immediate risk from looting and destruction. Ben Sullivan attends a conference in the Middle East and gives expert advice on using technology to combat the threat

The Antiquities Coalition recently organised the Cultural Property Under Threat conference. This brought together the very policymakers who can save the rich cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, including Ministers of Antiquities, Culture, and Tourism from 10 Middle Eastern and North African nations — as well as the Head of the Arab League and Secretary General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.

In the lead up to the conference Deborah Lehr, chairwoman and co-founder of the Antiquities Coalition stated in the Huffington Post: “This war is about more than relics. The connection between the erasure of heritage and human atrocities is long-standing, as oppressors obliterate the past by erasing symbols of conquered cultures. From Caesar’s arson of the Library of Alexandria to the Nazis’ destruction of synagogues to the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, eliminating cultural identity is a strike against the spirit of a people.”

I attended the conference and presented in an expert panel discussion on the use of technology and digital inventories of cultural objects. I was able to draw on Axiell’s work in the Middle East over the past 10 years to highlight the importance of digital inventories in the identification and recovery process of missing or stolen antiquities.

Digital inventories assist with the identification process as well as the legal recovery of smuggled and traded antiquities. A seller or trader of stolen antiquities has less freedom if an antiquity is “known”, i.e. information and images are available via an online register. The International Council on Museums (ICOM) guidelines on documenting cultural heritage state that “stolen objects that have not been photographed and adequately described are rarely recoverable by their rightful owners.”

Looted antiquities are often traded multiple times across different borders before being sold to private collectors in Europe or North America. As Rachel Sabi’s investigations for The Guardian reveal, “blood antiquities” are currently being sold in London dealerships.

A central inventory should be a priority for all managers of museums and collection stores. If an object is registered and accessible in a digital form, the relevant authorities can utilize this information to perform real-time checks, making an illegal sale more difficult.

At Axiell we have many years’ experience of implementing such digital inventories at a local, regional and national level. Based on this experience, here are five key steps on how a digital inventory should be planned, implemented and supported. 

Five key steps to digitisation:

  1. Define the project aims and goals – What is the minimum metadata required for each object and storage location (eg Object ID is a UNESCO supported standard). Include at least one identifiable image per object. Once the scope of the data is agreed it is important to have ways of measuring progress, for example: The number of digitised records in a set period; Number of records with images; User specific digitization totals. Define access to the data, what information should be accessible and to whom – repatriation teams, customs officials (locally & internationally), Interpol, prosecutors, NGO’s and museum staff.
  2. Inventory your inventories– create a list of content that needs to be centralized, based on urgency, risks and needs. This gives a broad view of all existing data (paper based or online) before the project starts. A new project will often require moving data from legacy systems into a new standards based system. Include the “data managers” in the process, since they know what data is already available. Ask some simple questions to work out what data is actively used eg.
    “What process does the organization use to find an object?”
    “Where is the location information written down or managed?”
    “If an object is missing, how and when are people alerted?”
    “What audits have taken place and how regular are they?
  3. Assess skills and abilities– look at the available skills across the organization from object handlers to the technical and documentation staff. Assess for “capacity building” to plug any gaps in knowledge. Create groups of users based on the access that will be required; managers and decision makers – reporting tools.
  4. Define the standards– If data is kept in a format using standard data elements (e.g. Object ID, Lido, Spectrum, etc), information can be collated across different holdings more easily. With this in place you can aggregate data at a local, regional, national and international level and provide up to date alerts to customs officials for example. Accurate and consistent information allows custodians of the antiquities to make informed risk management decisions. Don’t reinvent the wheel and create your own database, there are existing systems that support these standards out-of-the-box.
  5. Start planning for the future not the past– Ensure that on-going data capture is addressed – this is key to the future success of a digital inventory. If sustainability is dependent on funding then there are some business models (freemium, subscription or sponsorship) that can be used to monetize the content or at least supplement the cost of maintaining the inventory. Whether you charge for access to higher quality content, have a subscription service or have sponsored web ads, money can be generated. The UK charity JISC, who champion the use of digital technologies in education and research provide further information on revenue models for digital projects –https://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/the-best-revenue-models-and-funding-sources-for-your-digital-resources

A paper based inventory is good; a database is better; an online, accessible, standards based, digital inventory is best! How digital inventories can help recover looted objects is perfectly illustrated by what happened at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. By the end of 2010 the museum had largely completed the digitisation of their inventory, including scans of all the original object registers.

In January 2011, the revolution happened and the digital collection was available as a primary source of information for antiquities that were looted or vandalised. “The vandals had tossed things everywhere, and museum objects were found in the most unlikely places, even discarded in rubbish bins.” As bad as this was for one of the world’s most iconic Egyptology collections – and one of the world’s great treasure houses of cultural heritage – it could have been worse.  The fact that many object records had been digitised and registrars were on staff who were able to participate in the inventory process is important to note here.  A few years ago, there was no collections management department at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The security of antiquities is secondary to the welfare of the people in these regions but if we build capacity to digitise the cultural content (and make it accessible), we create new opportunities. Possibilities can include tourism focused web sites, digital and traditional publications, interactive mobile and location aware tour guides, virtual reality interfaces, cultural learning platforms, apps, and so. This all helps raise awareness of the antiquities, gives opportunities for future development and provides revenue streams for the people who need it most.

Axiell provide collections management software and expertise to more than 3,000 not-for-profit and private organisations across the world. Over 690 million objects, works of art, specimens and antiquities are managed.