Technology is transforming how people interact with history and heritage, providing unparalleled insight into our past. From deciphering ancient manuscripts with image processing and machine learning, right through to the recent 3D modelling of priceless artefacts, such as the Lion of Mosul, technology is bringing us closer to the past and widening the horizons of millions.
The digitisation of documents, for example, is playing a key role in preservation; with museums, libraries and private collections around the world using technology to enhance their capabilities and ensure that historic documents will still be accessible in decades, even centuries to come.
DIGIT caught up with Melissa Terras, professor of digital cultural heritage at the University of Edinburgh and director of research in the new Edinburgh Futures Institute, to discuss her work using emerging technologies in cultural heritage preservation and the importance of the humanities in a digital age.
“There is mass-digitisation across the world, and in Scotland too,” she explains. “The National Library of Scotland, as an example, is now digitising three million items a year. They’re going to have around one-third of their collections in digital form by 2025, I believe, which is really amazing.”
Terras spent several years working on a project to develop handwriting recognition technology, known as Transkribus. This machine learning and image processing software helps produce transcripts of hand-written archival material. Within the past two years, she says, this project has underlined the benefits of tech-enabled solutions in this field.
“About a year and a half ago we had a big technological jump and now we’re getting between 93-95% accuracy when reading the text in these handwritten historical documents,” she explains.
“People are suddenly going ‘oh, this works’ and putting in 10,000 pages of manuscripts and sending it away to be computed,” Terras adds. “It will generate what it says into machine processible text just a few hours later and really simplifies the process and expands what we can then do with the transcribed historical texts.”
With more than 22,000 users worldwide – and an extra 250 users each week – Transkribus showcases how technology can have an enormous impact in this field and simplify previously arduous, time-consuming processes.
Currently, the software only works on major European languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. However, Terras adds that they’re also building a model for Scots Gaelic – an aspect of Scottish heritage in which great preservation efforts are underway.
“There’s a mass-digitised content database at the School of Scottish Studies (University of Edinburgh) and they’ve been digitising their Gaelic materials over the past ten years,” she says. “We’re working with them to build the Gaelic model for Transkribus and, eventually, we’ll be able to run Gaelic manuscripts through it.”
Preserving literature and written works from the past is an issue of great importance, Terras insists. In doing this, we gain a fascinating glimpse into how life was in centuries past, from the grandiose even down to the mundane, such as handwritten letters describing birthday parties.
On a deeper level, however, technology is helping to open up cultural heritage to new generations, with people from around the globe now able to draw upon resources to gain a clearer understanding of the world they live in.
“The point of the humanities is to study the past to understand the present, and digital technology is a very persuasive thing that can be used to improve this,” she says.
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Emerging technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), are also enhancing how we interact physically with historic sites across Scotland, and indeed the world. These technologies help us in two main functions; allowing people to explore and engage from afar, and to gain a deeper understanding or glimpse into the site/area they are physically exploring.
Historic Environment Scotland, for example, is capitalising on emerging technologies to improve visitor experiences at heritage sites. Caerlaverock Castle recently launched an AR game, which lets visitors immerse themselves in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the castle during the 14th century.
“In terms of the applications of technology in heritage, we can improve accessibility and bring more people into the fold, so to speak,” Terras says. “We are able to get more people through the door or to understand things from a distance, and that’s of massive importance.”
“Increasing the accessibility of fragile materials in collections, and being able to put that online, undoubtedly changes the scale of what people can do and see within the space of a lifetime,” she adds.
Earlier this year, Google recreated the ancient Lion of Mosul statue. While the original was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015, the tech giant was able to recreate the iconic statue through crowdsourced pictures and 3D printing. The recreation was unveiled at the Imperial War Museum in London on the 5th of July. Online visitors, however, could examine and explore the intricacies and exquisite detail of the piece.
A report published by the Scottish Heritage Partnership by a team at the University of Glasgow, Terras points out, highlights both the benefits and the growing demand for tech-based immersive experiences like these. Demand for these tech-enabled experiences, the report shows, are “particularly present” in the under-35 demographic.
“VR/AR supported by appropriate narrative provides a potentially large advantage in the marketability and memorability of experiences,” the Scottish Heritage Partnership report states. “It is also expected that in the future, the visitor experience will be monitored, individualised and optimised through the greater deployment of metrics arising from smart building technology.”
Capitalising on rapid technological advances will be key to cultural heritage preservation in years to come. However, this is an issue that transcends just the heritage sector. Through the adoption of emerging technologies, the humanities will be a key component in shaping the future of society. By enabling people to immerse themselves in the past, we can gain a clearer view of our present and future, Terras insists.
“Junior audiences are keen on using these immersive technologies and that’s expanding the types of groups of people who are engaging with the past,” she says. “That raises questions on why it is useful to engage with the past.
“We have a tendency of thinking that all that matters is the here and now, but everything we do in our society is a product of decisions that have been made ten, 20 or 100 years previous. Understanding a little bit about these power structures, and how we’ve come to be in these situations, is hugely important.”
While one may think that taking the kids to see a castle on a Saturday afternoon is just a day trip, she says, people are actually engrossing themselves in a deep, complicated ecosystem that has a past; complete with its ups and downs, turbulent histories and crucial moments in time.
Terras says that the humanities have been the victim of “concerted attacks” by many within society for some time now; a study area that is often demonised and labelled irrelevant in the modern era. The reality is that this is still a crucial subject area and, through rapid technological advancements, it can continue to drive innovation and expand horizons.
“The perception of the humanities, and the worth of it, has been subject to concerted attacks by politicians and government for more than 100 years now,” she claims. “But why do people need to understand the past?
“Well, if people understood it, you might spot fascism in its infancy, you can question economic policies or camps at borders and you have the rhetoric and the understanding of our societal power structures to be able to negotiate, influence and change that.”