June 01, 2007

The Computised Caves

Searching for something to write about- I came across this interesting article on the Dunhuang caves in China- the custodians of the caves increasingly worried about the presence of tourists and the difficulties of protecting the caves from erosion, have decided to found a multimedia centre which will show people the images without them needing to examine the caves and damage them in microscopic detail.

Its interesting because of course anyone who owns rare and ancient remains of previous civilisations faces two parallel difficulties at the moment- the first is the difficulty of preserving the actual monuments- as air travel falls in price and the number of tourists rise so does the danger to things that have been preserved for centuries even millennia. On the other hand as the digitisation of material takes place more and more- the Google project with Harvard, the Bodleian and other libraries comes to mind- the entire uniqueness of actually seeing something evaporates- in a sense it leaves these organisations with a commercial dilemma- attempting to control their digital images if that becomes their main attraction instead of the real image that you can't see for fear of damaging the artefact.

But for us as well as individuals it brings some interesting consequences too. I have worked now for too many years on seventeenth century history- part of the excitement of doing that is of course working with the original manuscripts and documents. For those who don't know about it though its worth saying that most historians of that era now also work with digital photocopies of pamphlets which are on the web- for my area the Early English Books Online resource is the leading one but I know that there are others in other areas. For me as a historian that means that finding things becomes much easier- I can look up John Wildman's Putney Projects- an obscure 1647 tract about the Putney Debates in seconds whereas years ago I would have had to find the library with the copy inside it- almost certainly the British library in London and go there. It does have negative consequences though- there is something very special about holding in your hand a seventeenth century piece of paper and scanning it for information- you feel like a real historian not just someone surfing the internet.

It is interesting in that sense because of the way that it will change our relationship and is changing our relationship with the artefact. The mystique of the artefact is drained away by reproduction- what does seeing the caves mean if you have seen the photos of the cave. Its a legitimate question- what the original adds is an emotional fix, an emotional verity but in reality providing the copy is good enough is that all that it adds and should we for the sake of the artefacts themselves snap out of our rather egocentric desire to see and touch everything, to be familiar with it. Perhaps over familiarity through reproductions also leads us to expand our expectations of what we want- if I can see the caves here in pictures on the net- then when I've paid thousands to get to China, I'll want to touch them, feel the atmosphere etc.

Its an interesting issue- one I don't claim to have any expertise upon but I do think that the rise of tourism and the rise of digitalisation is going to change our attitudes to the artefacts of the past- attitudes that given the recent rise of museums and interest in history are hardly hardened but have only been around for the last hundred years at most.


Graeme said...

It's a tough issue.

On an intellectual level, I think things like digitising the Bodleian and making its contents available to anyone who is interested is an absolutely fantastic thing. There's something incredible about living in a time where it may actually be technologically possible for anyone (given that they have a computer and an internet connection) to access the collection of one of the world's greatest libraries.

At the same time, there's something to be said for actual physical objects. I don't have any experience handling old and rare manuscripts, but I do love books as physical objects almost as much as I love them for their contents. For example, I have a 1945 Faber and Faber edition of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, and there's something about the thought of somebody buying that book, perhaps even in a ruined 1945 London, that gives something so much more than reading the poem on a screen could.

Gracchi said...

Graeme I think I share your attitude entirely- I know what you mean about holding old books it is an incredible experience but like you I think its brilliant that anyone can get access to the Bodleian.

Graeme said...

I suppose that with the books, the two don't have to be opposed to each other.

I'm not sure about the caves though--if I wanted to see caves, I wouldn't be satisfied with just seeing pictures of them.