On April 15, a fire ravaged the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, completely destroying its 295-foot spire and causing significant damage to the structure, which has stood the test of time since the 12th century.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to restore the architectural and cultural icon to its former glory. Many experts suggest that the use of high-resolution photography, digitization and other high-tech preservation methods may play an important role in this process. Indiana University experts in art history, digital preservation and historical collections are available to comment on the potential role of these technologies in the restoration process:
Heather K. Calloway, executive director of University Collections at IU, leads efforts to preserve collections across the university's nine campuses. Her research and educational background focus on collection preservation, digitization and theology, specifically focusing on religious, church and fraternal items.
"The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral raises awareness about the need for disaster planning at historic cultural resources, including environmental controls, water detection and fire suppression systems," Calloway said. "Unfortunately, a policy of deferred maintenance on infrastructure and other property is not uncommon at churches and other spaces of religious worship, which often places irreplaceable collections, archives, artifacts and art at risk for a major disaster. Aging facilities require regular preventive maintenance and capital planning to protect the treasures within these spaces."
Kalani Craig is a medieval and digital historian and co-director of the Institute for Digital Art and Humanities. She is also clinical assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History.
"Aside from being in near-tears about the potential loss of the cathedral, this tragedy reminded me that digital preservation is both meticulous science and humanist triumph," Craig said. "A few years ago, I was struck by the power of other researchers’ scientific renderings produced by lidar scans, which made me feel as though I was standing in the middle of the cathedral. The magic of digital preservation is that it benefits us on the ground as we reconstruct damage caused by fires like the one at Notre Dame, and also gives us the opportunity to experience these cultural-heritage sites when we don’t have the means or ability to travel to them."
Cordula Grewe is an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Art History. She has led the use of full-size original artist sketches and photography to digitally reconstruct a large mural cycle that once covered the interior of the Alte Pinakothek, a museum in Munich, Germany, destroyed during World War II.
"When I saw Notre Dame de Paris in flames, I just had to cry due to the loss of history," Grewe said. "Working myself on a project that reconstructs an important museum site in Munich which fell prey to World War II bombing, I am very aware about the importance and opportunities, but also the challenges, of reconstructing lost art. Photos, plans, sketches, cartoons and other original sources can serve as a basis to stitch together not only lost architecture but also lost decorative schemes or, in the case of Notre Dame, the reconstruction of stained-glass windows and other artifacts.
"The ability of the digital arts to present these spaces in 3D is a crucial means to understand destroyed sites in a way traditional methods cannot. Notre Dame reminds us that we need to think ahead and use new technological methods to document broadly the world’s artistic heritage sites."
Eric A. Wernert is the director of visualization and data services for research technologies at IU’s University Information Technology Services. He has led visualization initiatives for the IU School of Medicine and has held leadership roles on the visualization components of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.
"The use of 3D documents and digitization can be a tremendous benefit in rare but extremely tragic cases such as the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral or the fire at the Brazil National Museum eight months ago," Wernert said. "Comprehensive document of these cultural treasures through high-resolution photography, videos and 360-degree panoramic photos is critical to the reconstruction process. Individuals can also help contribute to this process through the crowd-sourcing of existing resources, as has already begun to occur in the hours following the destruction in Paris."
Bernard Frischer is a professor in the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory at IU. In 2018, he led a group of IU students to the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence, Italy -- one of the most renowned art museums in the world -- to photograph a collection of over 1,250 Greek and Roman sculptures from the House of Medici. The work is part of a five-year project to make some of Europe’s finest artifacts accessible to the world. Some of these models are viewable on the Uffizi's public website and the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory's publicly available Digital Sculpture Project.