Who Owns Cultural Data of Destroyed Art?

Giuditta Giardini

The 3D reconstruction of the city of Palmyra, a digitized copy of the Brazil national museum, new media art products, Google Cultural Institute’s collection and Object IDs have something in common: they are all “cultural data.” More than 2 billion people in the world create “digital culture” by simply sharing photos, videos, and links or writing posts, articles, and comments. At the same time, analog culture is taking to the cybersphere, from the Gutenberg Project, the first project to digitize books and archives, to the latest EU online cultural platform, Europeana, which counts 2,165,191 digitized works. The digitization of cultural heritage of the last 20 years has opened the doors to innovative conservation processes allowing the study of the past through the use of computational methods already used for big data.

Lev Manovich, professor of Computer Science Program at the City University of New York coined the term “cultural data” in 2007. In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Cultural Property, archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman used the term to predict a future digitization of the art world, namely a change from material cultural goods to immaterial cultural data—reproductions in digital format of existing works of art or monuments with attached metadata (name of the author, age, provenance, material, etc.). Five years on, Silberman’s prophecy has come true. There is no work of art in the world that has not been digitally reproduced and for which we do not have data. The result is a gigantic “cloud” of cultural information coming from myriad sources: Google Arts & Culture, Art Project, Google books, image collections, Objects IDs, relational databases, collections management systems, museum, institutional and government websites, online magazines, social media. Cultural data are also the product of the so-called new media art, namely representations that exploit new artistic technologies, such as algorithmic art, digital art, computer graphics and animation, virtual art, video games, robotics, 3D printing and cyborg art or cyborgism.

If this confuses you, you aren’t alone. To make order out of chaos, I created three categories to divide data concerning art or being art themselves: cultural data relating to existing cultural heritage and goods; cultural data of immaterial cultural heritage, a category that exists only in data; and cultural data of digital art, which concerns a bunch of information that is both art and data at the same time.

The first cluster of data (cultural data relating to existing cultural heritage and goods) can be further divided into two sub-categories: cultural data of cultural heritage available in nature and cultural data of cultural heritage once existing, but not available anymore. It’s particularly devastating when a natural disaster eliminates a cultural artefact.

When I was a child, my father told me the tragic story of how the Library of Alexandria died by fire, consigning an unfathomable amount of ancient history, literature and learning to the nether realm of memory. Later in life, I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which reminded me of the great Egyptian library. The book takes place in an imaginary northern Italian Abbey. As happened in Alexandria, a fire breaks out at the Abbey, destroying the annexed library full of tasty books and old scrolls. In the last chapter of the book, you feel the pain of the narrator and protagonist, who witnesses the loss of ancient knowledge. In Eco’s book, the burning of the library is a metaphor for the fear and pressure felt by encyclopaedists to recover and preserve the treasure troves of knowledge endangered by the fall of Roman empire and the crises of their time.

Fortunately, today these stories are no longer scary, as we have developed “shields of Achilles” to protect our knowledge. The technology is at the service of historical memory with the result that a growing amount of cultural data is collected and used for reconstruction, up to the point that digitization has become a new technique of conservation.

In September 2018, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burnt, leaving behind ashes where there had been dinosaur fossils, the oldest human remains ever found in Brazil, and records of indigenous languages. All told, about 20 million artefacts have been destroyed. However, the crowdsourcing of images of the museum’s content helped in re-creating the collection. National Geographic, UNESCO and the French government offered support for restoring the museum and reconstituting its collection. Simultaneously, Sketchfab’s 3-D modelling community started to collect its own store of digital models related to the museum and its artifacts.

Two hot topics in cultural data usage are the 3D reconstruction of the Syrian city of Palmyra and the Bamiyan Buddha’s hologram. In the case of the Buddha, for a long time, experts have been studying every inch of the statue, the niches and the valley. The studies were commissioned by UNESCO, the Ministry of Information and Culture of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties of Tokyo, and the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties and funded by a Japanese trust. The data collected allowed the realization of a hologram reproducing the great Buddha. The project was financed by the philanthropy of a Chinese couple and authorized by UNESCO and, finally, donated to the Department of Culture of Bamiyan and stored by ICCROM. As for Palmyra, again, both private and public companies were involved in the virtual reconstruction of the city under the auspices of UNESCO, which led the project.

If we make the assumption that cultural data are the DNA of cultural heritage, making it possible to “virtually” reconstruct anything in case of loss, problems arise regarding copyrights over those sets of data collected from destroyed cultural heritage. In the United States, digital copies of objects in public domain are not copyrightable (Bridgeman Art Library, 1999). Yet the same cannot be said when those copies are selected, coordinated, or arranged creatively. In the European Union, creative collective works receive the same protection granted to databases (Database directive, 1996). However, when we apply such protection to collection of data of lost destroyed cultural heritage, we feel that something is wrong.

If we take the examples provided above, we see how destroyed cultural heritage may pass from being available to everyone to being available only to the data’s owner jumping from the public domain to the private one. Cultural heritage, once visible, enjoyable, photographable and sharable, would vanish like the Library of Alexandria or Eco’s Abbey. For this reason, in the absence of an ad hoc international regulation on the matter, it is fundamental to enhance the intervention of public institutions and international organizations in private crowdsourcing projects as well as in financing more and more public projects.

In 2003, UNESCO adopted the Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage, stressing the paramount importance of access to the digital heritage. At that time, the main purpose of the Charter was to protect the digital heritage itself. However, today, those same recommendations can help us preserve those tangible and intangible heritage available only in data and digitized copies. “The purpose of preserving the digital heritage,” declares the Charter, “is to ensure that it remains accessible to the public.” Thus, Member States may play a decisive role in cooperating with relevant organizations and institutions and in encouraging a legal and practical environment which will maximize accessibility of the digital heritage. “A fair balance between the legitimate rights of creators and other rights holders and the interests of the public to access digital heritage materials should be reaffirmed and promoted, in accordance with international norms and agreements.” Crowdsourcing of cultural data, 3Ds reconstructions, and databases of images of lost cultural heritage will continue to be a tool of democracy until they guarantee data sharing and access to the public. If what once was accessible to all becomes the prerogative of a few and speculation arises, it means that the time is ripe to re-discuss collection, conservation and access to cultural data.

This blogpost is based on a previous article I wrote for the Italian financial newspaper IlSole24Ore. It builds upon the blogpost “Crowdsourcing del patrimonio cultural: Reflexiones jurídicas,” published by my dear friend and colleague Prof. Adriana Castro Pinzón – Universidad Externado de Colombia.