Digital revolution in cultural heritage revealed

The digital revolution sweeping through museums, art galleries and libraries is revealed in a unique exhibition to be opened at the University of Abertay Dundee tomorrow (18 November).


Entitled “Burnishing the Lamp of Memory: Documentation and Preservation in the Digital Age”, the exhibition brings together stories and displays from around the world to show how technology is changing the way we see and care for cultural artefacts like pictures, sculpture, documents and architecture.

The show follows on from an international conference on the subject held at Abertay last week and features the first appearance in the UK of exhibits first displayed at the highly prestigious “Mémoire de Patrimoine: de la plume au pixel” exhibition staged in Mons, Belgium, earlier this year.

Artefacts and displays from the University of Venice, Italy, and the University of Stanford, USA, tell the story of how digital scanning and computer simulation are transforming the way mankind’s cultural heritage is being preserved and interpreted anew for the modern world.

The exhibition has been staged jointly by Abertay University and the Patrick Allan-Fraser of Hospitalfield Trust, based at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. Trust director Willie Payne, who assembled the exhibition, explained:

“Digital technology is enabling us to understand cultural processes and ideas in ways previously unthinkable. In the past, techniques such as drawing, etching, and written description could help to explain and enrich artistic expression and its meaning for humanity.

“Now, the micro-chip and ever-more sophisticated software is enabling us not only to find new meaning in cultural artefacts, but also to examine objects in even greater detail so as to help preserve and, if necessary, restore them properly for future generations.”

The exhibit from Stanford University shows how laser scanning technology has been used to cast new light on Michelangelo’s world-famous statue of “David”, as well as highlight parts of the statue requiring restoration due to environmental damage. Professor Mark Levoy of Stanford has spent 13 years developing 3D digital models of the statue – the first time such a large sculpture had been studied so closely.

From Venice University comes a display of the work of Dr Alberto Sdegno, who has pioneered the use of digital technology to re-create and re-interpret the work of the 16th-century architect Palladio, who gave his name to the Palladian style that forms such a large part of late-Renaissance architecture, and the romantic cityscape of Venice in particular.

“Dr Sdegno’s work is a very good example of how digitally-reinforced creativity can help to bring the ideas of the past to life more vividly and much more quickly and immediately than was ever possible before,” said Willie Payne. “His 3D visualisations of Palladian and classical buildings provide an easily grasped understanding of how the creative process unfolds in architecture.”

Among the other exhibits is the famous Hospitalfield Harpsichord – an 18th century instrument faithfully re-created in digital form by Dr Kenny McAlpine of Abertay University, on which he recorded a suite of 17th century music he had rediscovered. Both the original harpsichord and the digital copy are on display in the exhibition.

Other exhibits illustrate the use of digital technology to record and metamorphose images of contemporary dance, as well the reconstruction of frescoes in the Cathedral of St Francis of Assisi in Italy, destroyed in an earthquake in 1997.

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