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Using technology to help preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage during the war

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett September 8, 2022
Cultural heritage is closely bound up with cultural identity, which is why work is going on in Ukraine to try to save it. Here are two organisations that are digitizing important buildings so they can be restored and reconstructed after the war.

An image of a square in Kyiv, Ukraine
(Image by Andrzej from Pixabay )

The idea of preserving cultural heritage is not necessarily top of everyone’s priority lists in the midst of a brutal war such as the one currently being waged in Ukraine.

But cultural heritage has a key role to play in the concept of cultural identity, which provides individuals of all nations with both a sense of self and of belonging. It is also a significant, if often unconscious, contributor to people’s feelings of self-worth and wellbeing.

Which is why it matters that UNESCO has verified the damage or destruction of almost 100 culturally important sites, including churches, museums and theatres, in Ukraine since the war began there on 24 February this year. It is also why Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the United Nations agency’s World Heritage Centre, pointed out that the deliberate targeting of cultural property of this type is a war crime.

Preserving Ukraine’s cultural heritage

One individual who has taken action to try and preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage though is Emmanuel Durand. He is a 53-year-old French engineer based in Geneva, who runs a structural integrity consultancy, Amann Engineering. 

Durand decided to put his experience of taking 3D laser scans of grain silos and heritage buildings at Beirut’s port following a gas explosion there in August 2020 to good use in Ukraine. A volunteer in both instances, the aim in Lebanon was to assess, digitize and monitor damaged structures in order to provide ongoing information to the army and fire brigade, enabling them to evacuate the area, if required, to preserve life.

In Ukraine’s case, the aim was to document the destruction of culturally significant sites across the nation. Durand applied for formal accreditation from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and was issued with a formal invitation to help. He was also allocated a coordinator to assist him in accessing assigned sites in cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv. 

The 3D models that he captured and processed using Leica Geosystems’ scanner technology will subsequently be used in a range of different ways. Durand explains:

Giving some light to the importance of the country’s heritage buildings is useful for Ukraine, especially now the war has been going on for some time, which means the danger is people may start to forget about it. So in that way, the images, and communication about them, is important to make people aware of the problems being faced. Providing 3D scans also brings a different angle – it becomes not just about the battles but, in a crude way, is showing the real damage being done to the country’s heritage. 

As not all Ukraine’s buildings benefit from having archived drawings, another important goal is to store and use the 3D images collected for restoration and reconstruction purposes. A further aim is to use them for forensics. As Durand says:

Ukrainians have very much a European mentality and take a strong approach to their heritage, so it’s very important for them to document cultural war crimes. They’re also very conscious of the power and symbolism of structures so, for example, we scanned a bridge in Kyiv that was later destroyed to stop the Russian advance, and they decided to keep it as it is and rebuild a new one in parallel.

After spending an initial three weeks in Ukraine this spring, Durand’s intention is to return in late September or early October. The aim here is to train a group of Ukrainian architects and engineers on how to use laser scanning technology to enable them to continue his work themselves. 

Digitizing monuments before they are lost

Three Ukrainians who are already engaged in a similar activity though are childhood friends, Yuriy Prepodobnyi, Andriy Hryunyak and Volodymyr Zaiats. They are also co-founders of Skeiron, a six year-old company named after the Greek god of the northwest wind due to their use of drone technology. The firm’s work includes scanning cultural sites, digitizing museum collections and creating virtual tours. 

But Skeiron, which is based in Lviv, whose Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site, has now also set up a #SaveUkrainianHeritage campaign to raise funds to help protect key buildings and monuments across the country. Chief Executive Hryvnyak explains the rationale:

We admire the cultural heritage of Ukraine, and since the state budget could not provide funds for this kind of work, and we saw the terrible condition of our cultural monuments, we wanted to digitize them before they were lost. The main goals are to create and save digital copies so that we’ll have the ability to restore heritage if it’s destroyed, as it was with Notre Dame in Paris, where Andrew Talon managed to make a digital copy before the church burned down.

Financial and technology-based support has so far come from organizations, such as the Aliph Foundation, an international alliance that protects heritage in conflict zones, Leica Geosystems, scanning technology provider Artec 3D and the Ukraine Art Aid Center.

As a result, the founders and their six employees have been employing drones and structured light laser and photogrammetric scanning technology, both separately and together, to capture data relating to 22 sites in Lviv since March. These sites include the Bernadine Monastery, the Dominican Church and the Church of the Archangel Michael and in total constitute about 80% of the monuments on the local government’s preservation list.

The company’s wider archive currently holds about 100 or so 3D models from around Ukraine to date. In future, the aim is to make them accessible to everyone via platforms, such as Google’s Arts & Culture, which display images and videos of artworks and cultural artefacts from around the world. 

The models will also be made available to both the Ukrainian government and architects undertaking restoration and reconstruction work who will be able to use them to create accurate drawings of the sites. As Hryvnyak points out:

After the end of the war, we’ll be able to help rebuild a new Ukraine with our technologies and skills in 3D scanning. In addition, our 3D models can be used for promoting Ukrainian heritage across the world, for online exhibitions and increasing local visitor interactions at museums.

My take

While the work required to restore and reconstruct Ukraine’s cultural heritage to its former glory after the war will undoubtedly be vast, the activities of both Durand and Skeiron are likely to prove vital in at least helping to lay the foundations.

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