Activists in Ukraine have started using 3D scanning to create digital copies of the country’s heritage sites at risk of being destroyed by Russian forces.
With Russian bombing having leveled parts of cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, Ukrainian volunteers are now on the move to immortalize the nation’s landmarks before they suffer the same fate. As part of the Backup Ukraine initiative, some 6,000 users have already used a mobile scanning app to archive 3D models of historical monuments and sites, in a way that protects them for future generations.
“With this technology, ordinary citizens have the ability to literally create a digital backup of their cultural heritage on a level far beyond anything that was possible just a few years ago,” said Tao Thomsen, co-creator of Backup. Ukraine, told Business Insider. “Seeing it in front of your eyes is almost like you can touch it. I think it gives a much stronger emotional impact than just seeing the images.
“We are studying how we can also use it as an educational tool. How can we use this to create empathy, not just in Ukraine, but in all countries of the world? »
The cultural cost of the Russian war
Under the 1954 Hague Convention, heritage sites are considered civilian in nature and as such countries at war are required to avoid deliberately damaging them or using them for military purposes. These rules were reinforced by a UN resolution in 2017, which made the destruction of such monuments a war crime, after a series of UNESCO World Heritage sites were obliterated by the state. Islam in Iraq and Syria.
Yet despite the rules introduced to protect these sites, there is evidence to suggest that Ukraine’s security is not being respected by advancing Russian forces. Not only has Russia engaged in indiscriminate bombing since the start of its invasion, it has reportedly begun to “Russify” the occupied territories, amid President Putin’s claims that Ukrainian history is not separate and deserves to be protected.
UNESCO also managed to quantify this destruction, announcing that 29 religious sites, 16 historic buildings, four museums and four monuments in Ukraine were razed or partially destroyed in March 2022 alone. The destruction of these sites, which included the Holocaust Memorial Center near Kharkiv, has since sparked an international effort to help protect Ukraine’s remaining artifacts.
“We must safeguard Ukraine’s cultural heritage,” declared Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, at the start of the war. “As a testimony to the past, but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve.
“Safeguarding” Ukrainian heritage sites
Having heard rumors that heritage sites had been destroyed during the war, Thomsen and his team concluded that Russia may be “deliberately destroying the material foundations of [Ukraine’s] culture”, which is why they took action. To prevent the country’s monuments from being permanently lost, Thomsen and co. have set up Backup Ukraine, an archive where volunteers can upload 3D models of themselves.
To make the initiative as accessible as possible to everyday Ukrainians, the organizers of Backup Ukraine built it around Polycam, a mobile LiDAR scanning app, which allows users to quickly create dimensionally accurate 3D models.
Initially, Thomsen says Ukrainians were reluctant to take the risk of going out to participate, but his team of contributors has now grown considerably from the 150 volunteers he started with. While the initiative started as a way to preserve cultural heritage, he adds that many users have started using it to document events on the ground and provide insight into war damage in Russia.
The initiative is carried out in collaboration with the Danish National Committee for UNESCO, Blue Shield Denmark, Polycam and Vice Media Group. For now, Backup Ukraine is only open to volunteers authorized by its organizers, who discourage contributors from scanning near conflict zones or without permission, but continue to enlist wherever they can.
People based in Ukraine and interested in contributing can learn more about Backup Ukraine here.
Archiving by 3D scanning
While Backup Ukraine is undoubtedly working for a worthy cause, it’s far from the first initiative to harness the power of 3D scanning for archival applications. In 2017, when the Islamic State was busy wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, the Dubai Future Foundation managed to 3D print replicas of artifacts destroyed by its forces.
On a larger scale, projects like Scan the World have also sought to make these artifacts accessible to everyone, creating an “open source museum” of downloadable, community-driven models. The group has built a free database of over 20,000 STL files so far, and it continues to grow, partnering with Google Arts & Culture to expand its collection of 3D printable art in July. from last year.
In fact, 3D printing of artifacts has become so commonplace that Cubicure has even developed an SLA 3D printable ivory substitute, which can be used to restore damaged historic objects. Thanks to its “Digory” material, researchers have already succeeded in repairing a 17th century coffin, without using real ivory.
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Featured image shows a bust being scanned using the Polycam app. Photo via Backup Ukraine.