As 2017 comes to an end the world’s great museums will create a new convention on copying art and items of historic interest. At first glance, it might seem that the old agreement on replicas had settled things of that sort back in the 19th century, but now the problem is that digital copies are already indistinguishable from the originals, and the originals themselves are perishing. Museum workers, curators, and scholars of art must answer tough questions, chief among them how to use the new technological capabilities to save the originals.
An outcry about the world losing its principal cultural treasures broke out in 2015 when videos of terrorists ruining monuments in Iraq went viral.
At that time two doctoral candidates in archaeology set up a crowdfunding platform where a tourist could upload photographs of the things lost, and this huge collection of images would be used to generate new facsimiles. The more photos the better the copies. There was a TED presentation of this project, which benefited from publicity and support in various countries.
In Russia any discussion of digital replication was confined to extremely narrow professional circles, and the public at large had only sketchy accounts. For example, it was known that during the digital reproduction of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Luxor a hidden chamber was discovered. But that the tomb was completely reproduced or, properly speaking, printed out to save the original from the crush of tourists—that was not even mentioned. That was something done by the Factum Foundation, the world’s leading company for 3D digital copies. Last year the Ziyavudin Magomedov PERI Charitable Foundation brought Factum into a joint endeavour. They have already made digital copies of Dagestan’s oldest mountain village of Kala-Koreysh, and this spring they will complete digital copies of the frescoes by Dionysus in Ferapontovo.
Now the Foundation is first to back the idea of the Victoria and Albert Museum to engage the world’s leading museums in developing standards for the huge field of digital replication. Soon enough this technology will not be confined to a select few—and that brings up the question of how to restrict the spread of copies, and whether there is any need to.
This subject was broached in 1867 by Henry Cole, who conceived the Victoria and Albert Museum. His standard called the Convention for Promoting Universal Reproductions of Works of Art for the use of museums around the world was signed by the royal families of Europe, including the son of the Russian tsar. What is now under consideration is a standard that would extend to the New World, Asia, and the Arabic countries. In 2017 it will already be one hundred and fifty years since the Convention was ratified, and that is reason enough for everyone to come up with a fresh agreement. Reaching such an agreement is essential, if only because Palmyra, for one example, has vanished and is beyond restoration.
In early December the PERI Foundation held a round table called The Era of 3D. A New Cultural Revolution. Using New Technologies for Museums and Preserving the Cultural Heritage at the International Cultural Forum in Saint Petersburg. Bill Sherman, head of research and collections for the Victoria and Albert Museum and a participant in the session, has said that a series of conferences is being prepared in various countries to reach an agreement on the legal, ethical and technological aspects of digital reproduction. And Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, announced that one of these international conferences will take place in the Hermitage.
Digital reproduction is not received the same way everywhere in the world. For example, some specialists believe that the depredations of monuments by vandals should be documented but that there is no need to rebuild them. As they see it, the capacity to reproduce everything reduces the responsibility of human beings toward culture. Along those lines, the debate is still going on about whether to reconstruct the Bamiyan sculptures in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Another question concerns how many copies should be made. The technology itself sets no limit, but should there be some restriction? Who is entitled to hold and reproduce such objects? Will the role of museums be altered?
And there is another consideration. Ilya Doronchenkov, dean of the department of art history at the European University, says that the status of the original object was called into question long ago. ‘We have followed the lead of the European Renaissance in accepting Roman copies in marble of original Greek bronzes. We go on about the “medieval” cathedral in Cologne, two thirds of which was constructed in the 19th century, and we regard early Russian replicas of Byzantine icons as masterpieces. Things we believe to be authentic are all too often nothing of the kind.’
Would it then be best to preserve and pass along to succeeding generations faithfully reproduced masterpieces, or to get involved in restoration (a process that itself quite often alters the original) and leave them the actual physical objects from the past?