Best Practices for Heritage Digitization

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Scores of blog posts published by Sketchfab (and others) will do a better job of detailing the technical and artistic challenges facing modelers in today’s world. We’ll direct you to those posts if you’re interested in learning more about the ins and outs of scanning, stitching, and designing models of objects and structures.

This post aims to address some of the ethical challenges and imperatives that swirl around us as we navigate through the choppy waters of (a) identifying viable monuments to capture, (b) communicating one’s mission, procedures, and outcomes to the proprietors of those monuments, and (c) maintaining good and fair agreements with those proprietors for the duration of a project.

None of the following recommendations have been vetted by any international legal body. Instead, they have been crafted here as a byproduct of experience working in a region notoriously over-protective of its cultural heritage. Some of what follows ought to serve for all of us as basic Rules of Thumb, while others might not apply to every reader out there who is currently working in geographic areas that do not employ equally strict regulations on scholars, specialists, and aficionados. In other words, take these thoughts for what they are: musings by those who’ve spent some time in the field and who’ve learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t.

The Basics

The digital reconstruction of spaces and images that constitute any nation’s cultural patrimony requires a carefully designed approach that respects the values and interests of both the proprietors of that patrimony and the international community at large. A strict ethical code must guide Project Managers to insure both the integrity of the work and the justified needs of the owners of artifacts. Those who violate these standards jeopardize both their own ability to continue working in the field (e.g., word gets around, people) and the already shaky bonds of trust between other modelers and the proprietors of the monuments that we all want to capture (e.g., don’t screw it up for others, people). Likewise, proprietors of culturally valuable artifacts must understand that their violation of these standards will reflect poorly on them and may result in a failure to document structures and objects that they might wish to be captured.

For Project Managers

The following points ought to guide practitioners and Project Managers during the data-collection and reconstruction phases of any modelling experiment.

  • Owners/directors/proprietors of structures, spaces, and objects must be contacted well in advance of any anticipated work. The notion of “well in advance” will vary from place to place. Usually six weeks of notice will suffice.
  • Requests to photograph, film, scan, or otherwise capture these areas digitally must include the following information:
    • Aims/goals of the project – the shorter, the better; the less jargon you use, the happier everyone will be (remember that not everyone reads English fluently).
    • Intended audience
    • Process/work schedule on site (specific dates/days, hours of work, and specific areas to be captured)
    • Work flow after data collection (where images go once they’ve been captured, who does the modeling, and the estimated time for creating models)
    • Platform in which models will be presented to the viewing public
    • Entrepreneurial aspirations (e.g. profit vs. non-profit; hint – most proprietors will look more favorably upon the latter than they will the former)
  • Project Managers may negotiate with Owners/Directors/Proprietors as they communicate their intentions to capture monuments and should expect to comply with the following requests (as well as others):
    • Abide by local, regional, or national regulations pertaining to equipment, tourist interference, climate conditions, etc.
    • Respect areas deemed off-limits to them for reasons of personal security, cultural sensitivity, and safety
    • Provide payment for guards/chaperones during data collection – this may be mandatory when one captures data in a museum or other similar cultural site that is staffed by unionized employees
    • Provide the institution with a copy of the completed file for their use on site (this does not necessarily mean the copy must be provided gratis)
  • Written permissions, either in the form of letters or emails, must be obtained from appropriate sources or offices that govern the site to be captured
  • The presentation of these permissions may be required upon arrival on site, and this request may be made each and every time the Project Manager conducts works. Permissions should be accessible throughout the duration of the project
  • Abide by parameters of the time agreement (arrive on time and complete work on time)
  • Project Managers may request additional access points on site, but may not demand it
  • Project Managers must anticipate unforeseen restrictions due to unexpected complications (the unannounced appearance of scaffolding, removal of objects for restoration or loans, etc.). Don’t throw a fit if things don’t look exactly the way you thought they would.
  • Project Managers must work with staff to prepare spaces (physically) for data capturing. Modern items like fire extinguishers, folding chairs, didactic posters, guard robes, etc., may be moved with the express cooperation of staff and without prior written permission – but only if overseen and approved by staff on site
  • Project Managers must work with staff to restore these spaces to their original settings after data collection
  • At no time may the Project Manager touch, move, alter, or manipulate actual cultural artefacts; appropriate lighting should be discussed in advance. Written requests to handle artefacts or alter their presentation in any form must be submitted in advance and executed by staff only
  • Project Managers must anticipate staff interest, and thus work to educate staff during data collection sessions. Including staff during data acquisition periods will make for an engaged and cooperative group of assistants
  • Project Managers should provide periodic updates to Owners/Directors/Proprietors during modeling/finishing stages
  • Project Managers must collaborate with Owners/Directors/Proprietors to find appropriate sharing and presentation tools upon completion of models. All advice provided should be performed free of charge
  • Project Managers must not charge payment for delivery of finished models to Owners/Directors/Proprietors unless previously negotiated

Violation of these best practices may constitute valid grounds for termination of the project by Owners/Directors/Proprietors who justifiably fear the exploitation of their cultural patrimony for monetary gain by outside interlopers.

For Owners/Directors/Proprietors

Owners/Directors must also abide by a set of Best Practice guidelines should they choose to grant Project Managers access to their sites. These guidelines may include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Grant to the Project Manager all copyrights to the data collected and modeled: models must be considered the Intellectual Property of the Project Manager
  • Abide by agreed upon entrance and completion times of daily work
  • Permit access to all areas on site that have been agreed upon during negotiations: communicate this permission with staff in advance of work
  • Provide necessary staffing (if requested) to assist Project Manager during set-up and restitution phases of each day’s work
  • Anticipate on-site requests by Project Manager to gain access to additional spaces and be as flexible as possible: but retain right of refusal for valid reasons (danger to Project Manager or staff; danger to objects or facility; violation of sacred spaces; etc.)
  • Grant Project Manager permission to use and display in perpetuity and free of charge any and all images captured by equipment during data collection period as long as Project Manager abides by agreement
  • Recognize that the length of time needed to complete the modeling/finishing phase of each Project will vary according to a variety of factors, anticipated and otherwise

Failure to abide by these basic tenets jeopardizes the integrity of the project, results in a breach of good faith, and may prevent the Project Manager from completing work. Those Owners/Directors/Proprietors who violate these basic standards may relinquish their rights to the finished product.

The Finishing Stages

Data collection and the preliminary phases of each project represent only the initial sets of challenges facing the modeler of culturally sensitive monuments. The process of acquiring, stitching and sequencing, and perfecting models appropriate for general audiences takes a long time, costs money, and must be executed by experts in the field. Project Managers and Owners/Directors/Proprietors must recognize and acknowledge the vital role these experts play.

Digitized projects will be produced and operated on differing software and hardware platforms according the equipment each Project Manager selects. Project Managers and Owners/Directors/Proprietors must communicate and collaborate with each other during production phases to coordinate delivery efforts. The following understandings must be accepted:

  • It will be the responsibility of the Project Manager to alert Owners/Directors/Proprietors of equipment and software platforms required to operate models and programs
  • It will be the responsibility of Owners/Directors/Proprietors to purchase those platforms, to hire their own technical staff, and to present the data provided to them by the Project Manager
  • The responsibilities of the Project Manager end the moment all files have been completed, transmitted to, and received by Owners/Directors/Proprietors – although the Project Manager may negotiate with Owners/Directors/Proprietors to provide further services if so desired
  • Owners/Directors/Proprietors must acknowledge the copyright and intellectual property rights of the Project Manager for all use of data, models, files, etc.

The Basics, again

It should be the intention of the Project Manager to create (and recreate) cultural sites that may be examined by all viewers globally. Fees may be demanded of Owners/Directors/Proprietors, but these should only cover the costs of acquisition, production, and equipment. For-profit ventures run the risk of dissuading Owners/Directors/Proprietors from cooperating.

It should be the intention of Owners/Directors/Proprietors to publicize and record/conserve their cultural patrimonies to a broad audience. They must recognize the costs incurred by Project Managers and help defray those costs in order to expedite this important work.

A mutual understanding of the benefits and risks of digital work at culturally significant sites insures the employment of ethical Best Practices, respect for sacred spaces, and the intellectual property of all parties.


George R. Bent, Ph.D. (Dept. of Art and Art History)
David Pfaff (Director, IQ Center)
Project Managers
“Florence As It Was”
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450

07 January 2019

About the author

George R. Bent, Ph.D., and David Pfaff

Project Managers, Florence As It Was

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