Opinion: technology can create digital and virtual animated museums which will help promote the sustainability of our cultural heritage

Museums are under increasing pressure to consider their own sustainability as they seek to enhance the quality of life of everyone both today and in the future. Museums pass on collections, information and knowledge contributed by people in the past to future generations. Sustainability generally concerns future needs and is not just the consideration of environmental needs, but also economical (business), social (travel, leisure) and educational (community) needs. 

When it comes to sustainability, museums increasingly need to think within the realm of the quality of service and excellence of their own institution as well as to that to their local community. Projects need to be developed to build relationships virtually with new audience groups.  

RTÉ Six One News report on the fire which destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

Best practice in the realm of museum and heritage sustainability needs to consider the social role of the contemporary museum and heritage centre in a world affected by climate change. It also needs to source, develop and test community co-production methodologies alongside the use of digital tools for tourism and education. Furthermore, environmental policy recommendations need to be considered for slow and sustainable tourism, and the value of local heritage sites for planning. 

Virtual museums without walls can be - and are being - developed and assessed including specifically the data gathering and its management from museums. Museums need to explore their social, economic and political role within often remote and sparsely populated regions. They need to embrace their responsibility to raise awareness for the local landscape and its natural and cultural heritage, in order to protect and enable sustainable environmental management. As a result, they should play a stronger part in offering on-site specific heritage data to communities, authorities and visitors. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Catherine Heaney, Chairperson of the National Museum of Ireland, on the 15 year Master Vision Statement for the museum

It is important for museums to recognise the importance of using technology within their institutions to facilitate the collection and dissemination of heritage information from and to communities, authorities and visitors. Toolkits can enable sharing of information more widely. Museums can build informative, fun applications for tourists that invite them to spend more time at a destination, encouraging slow travel. There is a vast array of technology which can enable new means of dissemination – animations, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Realty (AR) - as well as digital representations of historical objects and photogrammetry. Mapping and gamification techniques can be used to engage and assess participation of museum users.

A recent example of this is 1943: Berlin Blitz, the BBC’s VR recreation of a Lancaster bomber raid over Berlin where viewers hear the words of a 1940s' war reporter on virtual headsets. This virtual experience puts viewers in the shoes of war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas on a bombing raid at the height of the Second World War. Viewers can see the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber high over Berlin, with Vaughan-Thomas's commentary - based on a genuine broadcast - narrating the experience. Viewers can access the immersive experience using the BBC VR app on tablets and smartphones, which act as a view screen slotted directly onto the gadget.

A trailer for BBC's 1943 Berlin Blitz 

Another example is Google’s partnership with CyArk to expand CyArk’s mission to 3D laser-scan the world’s historical sites and provide open access to the data. This "open heritage project" aims to preserve historical sites digitally for future generations in case disaster strikes. It uses laser-scanning light detection and ranging devices (LIDAR) as well as photo imagery from drones and DLSRs in VR tours via Google’s Daydream platform. The CyArk studio has created 3D models for such high risk sites as the Ananda Ok Kyaung temple in Bagan, Myanmar which has remained closed to visitors since a 2016 earthquake but visitors can now virtually step inside and discover its famous wall paintings.  

Connected Culture and Natural Heritage in a Northern Environment (CINE), is a collaborative three year digital heritage project between 19 EU partners from Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. CINE aims to transform people’s experiences of outdoor heritage sites through technology, building on the idea of "museums without walls". New digital interfaces such as AR, virtual world technology and apps bring the past to life, allowing visualisation of effects of the changing environment on heritage sites, and helping to imagine future problems and challenges. 

CyArk documents the Ananda ok Kyaung Monastery in Bagan, Myanmar

This project also aims to develop content management toolkits to enable curators, archivists, historians, individuals and communities to create unique on-site and off-site customer experiences in specific locations.  This allows virtual customers to experience museums without environmental cost. In terms of technology, the CINE project uses both existing and newly developed VR and AR technologies to gather and distribute information to a wider public. This also facilitates the sharing of knowledge with entrepreneurs and companies within the creative and tourism industries. 

One study within CINE involves Ulster University working closely with Donegal County Museum and the town of Killybegs. This case study explores models of community co-production, the value communities place on their heritage and how this can be brought to a wider public though new means of interpreting the past. 

READ: What we lose when culture and heritage are destroyed

The partners in Northern Ireland and Ireland will create an online teaching resource to train and enable future community groups to record and interpret their own local heritage through the use of new technologies in digital documentation (3D data capture, 360 video, metadata) and narrative creation (story-telling), Cultural heritage content created by the community will include online 3D models, 360 immersive videos and multi-media content. This content has a range of potential uses including research data, cultural tourism and the creative industries sector. Ulster University will test-drive heritage games in Ireland through the Killybegs community group alongside Donegal Museum.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ