On October 31st, news broke that fire had engulfed the major buildings of Shuri Castle, a landmark of Okinawa located in the prefectural capital of Naha. The fire destroyed the main structure of the castle and gutted many other buildings. The present day incarnation of Shuri Castle is itself a reconstruction of the original 16th century complex that was destroyed in the bitter fighting between American and Japanese forces during World War II. Caught in the middle of what was later called the “Typhoon of Steel,” the Okinawan people and the cultural heritage of the island were devastated by the nearly three month long battle. Even as a reconstruction, the castle is a symbol of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The loss of culturally important objects and sites remains a problem into the 21st century. Notre Dame Cathedral was ravaged by fire in early 2019. The 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Kumamoto Castle suffered significant damage in a 2016 earthquake. Japan is particularly susceptible to losing culturally significant structures, as earthquakes and fire have been persistent dangers. With this in mind, cultural preservation has always been on my mind as a component of cultural heritage studies. My interest in photography and photogrammetry have lent themselves to different ways to explore cultural heritage and create a public facing component to my projects during my CHI fellowships. Given the intensive nature of the photo and the necessity of on-site work, it is not something that is possible for every project, nor an addition that can be easily made to a project.

The use of digital tools for cultural preservation is still relatively new in the public imagination. After the Notre Dame fire, much was made over Ubisoft’s 2014 game Assassin’s Creed and the detailed scans used in the game to recreate locations such as the cathedral. It was thought the scans could be used to guide the reconstruction of Notre Dame. Even though it was later revealed the scans made for the game were inadequate, it gave spark to the idea in the general news media that 3D imagining of a site could be used to digitally preserve a site, although the process to capture a site in the detail needed is an involved, intensive and expensive process.

Image from Assassin’s Creed: Unity by Ubisoft

Aside from preservation by creating an exact digital model, 360 images and photogrammetry can be used to represent the past through the reconstruction of space. While a common criticism of 3D models is that they are minus the messy factor of everyday life, from people to stains, a 3D model of a cultural site can still convey useful information for researchers and students, presenting the spatial relationships and material objects of daily life en situ rather than as detached parts. Considering this kind of 3D model as an interpretation of the past to examine a particular concept, just as a historical monograph is an interpretation, is the way I’ve tried to frame the use of 3D reconstructions rather than a time tunnel into a specific point in the past.

The idea of using digital methods for cultural preservation and education fits in to how I am trying to conceptualize the use of processes such as photogrammetry and 360 photography in the study and teaching of history. Digital imaging also ties in to the rise of material culture studies, a field which I am also interested in. The transitory nature of much of popular culture lends itself to the use of photography to capture a specific moment in time for study. The edifices built for the Olympics may remain but the Olympic moment only lasts two weeks. Another example is the state of the 2010 World Expo buildings in Shanghai, many of which were intended as temporary and dismantled some time after the event. In these cases a very useful route of investigation for cultural heritage and imaging is examining these spaces and their uses over time.

Implementing 3D images and 360 images is a major component of my potential CHI project this year, as I am able to draw upon a large number of images taken over the span of two years. Compared to my use of 360 pictures in previous projects, my main goal is to to understand how to integrate images into the interpretative core of the project rather than as a illustrative component.