How does one define documentation in the context of cultural heritage? What are the critical elements in undertaking documentation that can help ensure its effectiveness before, during, and after conservation? Three experts who have extensively produced or utilized documentation offer their perspectives on this somewhat overlooked aspect of the conservation process.
Alonzo C. Addison is president of the Virtual Heritage Network and currently serves as special advisor to the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, guiding technology deployment for the heritage arena and for UNESCO's World Heritage portal. He founded the Center for Design Visualization at the University of California, Berkeley, and in the early 1990s he helped create the first high-accuracy long-range laser scanner as vice president of Cyra Technologies (now Leica Geosystems).
Paul Bryan is the head of the Photogrammetric Unit of English Heritage, and the leader of the Metric Survey team. Prior to joining English Heritage in 1985, he spent several years working on surveying contracts in the United Kingdom, Iraq, and Kuwait. Based in York, Paul is an active member of the U.K. Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc), as well as the U.K. representative for CIPA Heritage Documentation, the ICOMOS and ISPRS International Committee for Architectural Photogrammetry.
Werner Schmid is a freelance conservator of mural paintings and related architectural surfaces, practicing mainly in Italy. From 1990 to 2000, he worked as a project manager at ICCROM, supervising a variety of efforts, including training courses and technical meetings. While at ICCROM, he coordinated the research seminar GraDoc—Graphic Documentation Systems in Mural Painting Conservation—and was the editor of the proceedings, which were published in 2001.
They spoke with Rand Eppich, a GCI project specialist who manages the Institute's Digital Laboratory, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: How would each of you, in a concise way, define documentation?
Werner Schmid: For me, documentation is the knowledge base that reflects our current understanding of the heritage itself. It includes all the published and unpublished information, both visual and textual. Our understanding of the heritage is under constant revision, and as new information comes in, the documentation of the heritage grows and develops over time. In terms of activity, documentation means the recording of new information that comes from conservation and research activities that are dedicated to a given heritage. It is certainly a multidisciplinary activity, which consists of research, recording, evaluating, interpreting, correlating, archiving, managing, and disseminating information. It involves written reports, surveys, photographic records, and the establishment of digital databases that try to make all relevant information accessible in one place. I see documentation as a medium through which the results of research and conservation activities are communicated and shared when a project is under way, but also in the future. As such, documentation has an essential position within conservation and research and is a reference for all involved in these processes.
Paul Bryan: I concur. Within my particular context, documentation involves creating supporting records for a project, which assists in monitoring, understanding, and conservation. In terms of the actual activities, that includes metric surveys in various analog and digital forms, which describe the spatial relationships of a building or place. As mentioned, documentation also includes photography—analog and digital—historical analysis, both architectural and archaeological, previously published works, and, of course, the actual conservation analysis and the treatments themselves.
Alonzo C. Addison: Are we talking about documentation as a noun—the documentation—or as a verb, to document?
Levin: I think we're talking about both.
Addison: I think to document something is to bring together all of the knowledge about that object, that cultural heritage, into one place. The most basic is the dimensional documentation, the measurement of an object, the recording of it. With the advent of digital technologies, it has become easier to document and easier to integrate the many forms of documentation. We now can go from the traditional dimensional to the locational and the visual and, finally, to what I call the environmental, which is all the other scientific measurements. In addition to that, there is all the knowledge, the history, and so on about cultural heritage that we want to include in that knowledge base.
Schmid: I tried in my first answer to give a more general definition of documentation, including all written and visual information. Many people think documentation is mainly about the dimensional representation of the physical configuration of a heritage. But this is just one part of the documentation.
Addison: It's good to define it in the broader sense. Dimensional documentation, which is what many documentation and recording professionals think of when they talk about documentation, may work well for a physical object such as an existing historic building in Europe, where you can utilize tools from analog to visual—a tape measure, survey equipment, a laser scanner, or even a camera—to capture the dimensions. But that's a very different sort of documentation than trying to capture Aboriginal cultural heritage in Australia, where you have much less physical presence and you need to rely on stories and imagery and other elements.
Rand Eppich: Werner, maybe you can comment on documentation as applied toward conservation.
Schmid: Conservation documentation is certainly all the information that is needed to plan conservation—to understand, first of all, the heritage, which is a prerequisite for starting any project planning—then all the information that is necessary to identify the problems and to understand the materials, the physical evidence. Conservation itself is an opportunity to review the history and knowledge we have of a heritage—so it is very important to record and to document all new discoveries that arise during a conservation treatment. The documentation of the condition after treatment is also very important for any future evaluation of the treatment. Documentation always has this dimension of before, during, and after.
Levin: Are any of those more important than the others? Do they all have equal importance?
Bryan: Each project is different. I try to promote people discussing more than the immediate project requirements. Whatever is produced by recording certainly must be usable in the immediate sense, but to justify the time and cost, it needs to have a longer-term use as well. I'm sometimes concerned that the level of documentation for projects is far too large for the immediate requirements—that there are several volumes of documentation produced, which may perhaps go into a cabinet simply to gather dust. That can't be allowed to happen, so we've got to look at the longer-term use of the documentation.
Addison: That alludes to a fundamental problem—a lot of the documentation isn't documented. If you don't document the documentation, let alone deal with how to preserve it in the media that you've recorded it in, is the entire effort useless? In the digital world I see this enormously. People take a digital photo of something, but unless they mark exactly what they took the picture of, it could be useless. The amount of effort to decode that piece of documentation becomes so large that it's easier and cheaper to send somebody back to redo it.
In talking about the purposes that documentation serves, I think we're missing a whole category of things. Documentation is also the basis of everything that goes into dissemination—presentations, education, television documentaries, games that help children learn. Documentation serves those purposes—which, in turn, help the conservation process because it makes the public more aware. It's important that we don't forget that documentation isn't just for the conservation community but serves a much broader public need—which, in turn, helps conservation because it raises awareness and money.
Bryan: In England, we talk about the virtuous circle, a cycle that starts with understanding the historic environment. Once people understand it, they start to value it—and if they value it, they'll start to care for it. That caring will actually lead people to enjoy the heritage—and once they enjoy it, then there will be a desire for more understanding about it. So, yes, the products of documentation are needed not only to preserve, prepare, record, and represent but also to disseminate and present.
Schmid: I agree that good documentation can provide material that can be also used for educational purposes and promotion. But this information must be processed and expressed in different ways if it's targeted to nonspecialists.
Eppich: Paul, does English Heritage have a way to do this when a project begins? Do they have a formal protocol to sit down and say, "we want these products at the end"?
Bryan: It tends to vary from project to project. One issue that we're currently facing is that while we're not moving away from conservation, the current priority seems to be on the understanding of the heritage—and if you're just focused on understanding, that can alter the level of recording that you need to undertake.
Schmid: The most frequent answer to the question of why documentation? is to create a permanent record, a sort of warranty against loss. This is based on a realistic view that we cannot preserve everything and that much of our heritage will be a victim of modern development, wars, or natural disasters.
Levin: To create a permanent record is, of course, to beg the question of what the nature or character of that record should be. Is the field generally missing a clearly stated understanding of what the standards and the process should be when one undertakes documentation?
Addison: People are quite savvy, but the problem is changing projects and changing needs. Perhaps it's not as much standards as it is better definitions and better guidelines. For example, if you take a digital photo, there are pieces of the knowledge base that need to be attached to that photo: who took the photo, on what date, and with what device, a description of what you're documenting, why, and other metadata. I prefer the idea of guidelines to the idea of standards, which is an area that the Getty can help with.
Eppich: Aren't some guidelines out there, but they're just not used? I know there are guidelines for photography. But how do you get people to use them? How do you enforce them?
Addison: It's training and education. The problem is that we have experts in many subareas. Professional photographers are pretty good about marking up their photos and cataloging them when they're in the field. But a heritage recording expert who may be trained in the use of the theodolite doesn't know about that piece of it. I think it's just training and guidance, maybe, disseminated through international organizations. Standards can backfire because people are very resistant and because they take so long to get everyone's agreement that by the time that they are agreed upon, they're obsolete.
Bryan: English Heritage has been generating standards in our field for a number of years. However, they cannot just sit on a shelf to be referred to year after year. To maintain their currency, they need to be continually updated, so that when new technology, like laser scanning, comes along, it can be effectively integrated into the process. Standards take an enormous amount of time and effort to collate, but when nonspecialists want to know how to specify a measured survey, for example, the necessary detail of the document may simply put them off. It's a difficult area, but standards, whether we like them or not, effectively underpin all of the work that we do. This is an area where I see the Getty being well placed—not to generate standards but to provide guidelines on how standards ought to be developed and maintained across the heritage sector.
Schmid: As an information technology user, I think that conservation and documentation are case-by-case issues and that it's very difficult to define detailed standards for the field. I agree that what's really missing are guidelines. A very hot issue that has developed with the advent of computer technology in heritage documentation is that we have, on one side, a segment of rather computer-illiterate conservation professionals and, on the other side, information technology specialists trying to sell their products. Guidelines are needed that give technology users some information on the basic functioning of these tools and that explain the pros and cons and the costs. The users have to have enough information to be able to choose the method that best matches their needs and to be able to communicate with information technology specialists in a more productive way.
Levin: What about the issue of access to tools? Tools that are available in one part of the world may be much less available in another part, yet the need for documentation is no less.
Addison: I used to think that there was limited access to tools. We've been working with UNESCO, looking at information technology and disseminating it, and our assumption was that in the developing world people don't have Internet access or they have slower access, and they don't have digital cameras. But we were surprised. It's almost the reverse. They have Internet access in the developing world that's typically pretty good—it may be in a café instead of at home, but statistics on browsers being used, processors, and operating system levels are impressive. To me, it's not as much a problem of access to tools but, rather, what we do with the tools we have. You can have the fanciest tool in the world, but if you don't use it to record useful things or don't put the metadata on the recording, it's still worthless. A lot of people talk about getting all these tools to the developing world. More important, I think, is one hard-coated sheet that states, this is the metadata that you should attach, whether you do it by hand or otherwise. Often when I lecture, I give a time line: stone lasts thousands of years, wood and paper hundreds of years, and digital media—CD, magnetic tape—tens of years. Even worse than the medium is the format: how it's encoded on the software. This lasts in the single digits at most. That seems to me the fundamental problem. Getting advanced tools into developing countries is important. But more fundamental is getting them guidelines.
Bryan: Rather than shipping new technology to developing areas of the world, the emphasis ought to be on making them aware of what the technology can and cannot do. This goes back to putting together some guidelines on what different technologies can do. The issue of people in developing countries not being able to get hold of a personal computer or access to the Internet is not going away, but it's certainly diminishing. More important is an appreciation by people of what is available and what technology can do for them. Once they see that, then maybe efforts from countries like ours can help provide them with access to some of that technology.
Schmid: Laser scanning is probably the most detailed measured survey tool, but in most cases there are alternative methods. I would rather ask what is the need in a particular recording project, and what are the options that we have to respond to that need? It might not be only a laser scanner. In countries where the workforce is less expensive than equipment, they could do it with hand measurements and come up with a similarly valuable result.
Bryan: We're applying close-range laser scanning on some of our projects—but not on every single one. On some projects we've even got nonspecialists who want to generate data themselves. Here imaging is probably a more effective tool that could be used by the majority of people, where all they really need is a hundred-dollar digital camera.
Schmid: Rectified photography is in many cases more than sufficient—and it's simpler and cheaper.
Bryan: I'm currently involved in a rock art recording project, where we're using volunteers who do not necessarily have a survey background but share a common interest in rock art and have some spare time. We're using laser scanning, where it's appropriate, at some of the larger, priority sites, but the majority of recording is being done by the volunteers themselves using handheld digital cameras. That could be perceived by some as a dangerous direction to go, but I'm placing great emphasis on providing training, to make sure the volunteers are aware of what they can or should do with the cameras, how the imagery can then be processed in modern photogrammetric packages like PI-3000 from Topcon, and what level of data can be generated by this lower-cost approach. For the basic recording of up to two thousand rock art sites, this is perceived as an effective and appropriate approach.
Levin: I'd like to address the integration of documentation activity into the conservation process. How well is that being done now? What are the problems with it?
Bryan: I have been involved in a number of conservation projects that, in my opinion, have been very successful. One in particular was the documentation of the great medieval nave ceiling at Peterborough Cathedral, where, from the outset, there was communication among all the people involved in the documentation aspects of the project—conservators, archaeologists, architects, analysts, and surveyors. Regular meetings took place, so that any concerns could be fully discussed. Communication within projects is what I would emphasize most. I've been involved in projects that haven't gone so well, and that tends to be because people have not been consulted.
Schmid: One of the huge potentials that new information technologies and information management tools offer us is a better way to communicate and share our results. That means establishing project-based Internet or Intranet sites. This really helps to integrate documentation into the conservation process by making the information available online to all who are authorized to receive it.
Eppich: Some people don't know exactly what products some of these documentation methods will provide. Do you think you have to manage expectations too?
Bryan: I could go back to a word that I used—successful. I said that the Peterborough Cathedral documentation was successful. That's my perception of it. However, how do you gauge whether documentation has been both successful and effective? It's really the people who manage the projects that need to make that judgment.
Schmid: Multidisciplinary cooperation in conservation projects is an old idea, but it rarely really works. For me, what often happens is that everybody documents their proper part of the project, but there's rarely an integration or correlation of data, a real interdisciplinary exchange and evaluation, which is, from a conservation point of view, an absolute requirement for a successful project.
Addison: Communication is key. I would say that communication has three phases. First, communication before you start, so that the needs are really understood. Second, communication during. This is a ripe area for the technology developers—for example, finding a way for the surveyor to communicate his data to the photographer while capturing it, or for the photographer to link what he's capturing to the archaeologist, so that in the field or during the recording process, there is communication among all players. Finally, after the recording is done, there needs to be an information management system. In many projects there are nascent information management systems, but I look forward to the day when there is a global database of all projects that can be cross-referenced and cross-indexed so that multiple people can share and communicate their results together in a global archive that will have longevity beyond individual project lives.
Eppich: Is it a problem to communicate during a project? In projects that I've worked on, if I send any data during, it sometimes creates problems because it's not finished, and people make judgments on it before I've included certain aspects.
Addison: It's very tricky because if you try to share outside the field, you have problems from those back in the office saying, well, that doesn't look complete. But even in the field it's challenging, because there is a lot of information that's needed and that people want. There's an enormous amount of communication that needs to happen in the field.
Levin: What about the potential for taking the data that is collected, and manipulating it in new and different ways that provide additional insight into the problems and the solutions that might be involved in the conservation project?
Addison: There are wonderful modeling systems, but again, I think it's not as much the technology as the people. It really comes down to the people and the knowledge of the professionals and how much of that gets there. We can get more and more photorealistic reconstruction, but more important is explaining the basis of the interpretation. What typically seems missing from these interpretations is documentation of the documentation—an explanation of how they got to this conclusion. It's not as much the technology—it's down to us, the people, informing, marking, and explaining everything we do so that someone can understand it at a later stage.
Schmid: From my experience, to get to real, significant results in investigation projects requires the correlation of too many different parameters—partly scientific, partly technical or graphical or whatever. A computer cannot do the same job as a human mind in these cases. A computer might help, but in the end, to really make a good interpretation means to integrate and consider so many different parameters from so many different areas of expertise. At the moment, a computer is unable to do that.
Levin: What I hear all of you saying is that while documentation is a field that relies a good deal on technology and equipment, what matters is the human quality and guidelines, which are not tool based. Communication, integration, the multidisciplinary approach—these seem to be the themes of this conversation. Whether you're working in a country that has access to everything or working in one that only has the most basic tools, you can fail in both places or succeed in both places. In either instance, you need guidelines that are understood and followed, and good communication from the beginning of a project among all members of the team.
Bryan: Yes, definitely. For example, the data is dependent upon the quality fed into it. Of course, only people can make the judgment that it's good quality or not. In ten or twenty years, the tools that the documenter uses will undoubtably increase in speed, use 3-D more, and some may even become automated. However, the process will still be based on human involvement in data gathering and input.
Levin: You're saying that in the future, if the documentation itself is to be better, it will be because communication and guidelines are better.
Addison: I would like to see the cultural heritage and natural heritage communities united on some guidelines. It would be great to communicate to the makers of digital tools—be they digital camera or laser scanner manufacturers—our needs as a community. They either aren't aware of what is needed to make their data useful in the future or they don't have time, or it's not easy. One thing that is easy is making it simpler for people to put the metadata onto things so that it can be used and communicated down the road. If manufacturers were approached in a united way and told, "look, these things would be useful," it's quite easy to add a couple of extra fields to the collecting device's format, which databases from yet other manufacturers could take advantage of.
Bryan: We've mentioned the word metadata. But how many people have actually started using metadata in the sense that it is designed for? In my organization, English Heritage, we've realized that metadata is the crucial element that will make archiving and accessibility to digital imagery possible. As part of this, we've recently been asked to caption every digital image taken, although our initial thought was, that's going to be an enormous amount of work. However, within the latest releases of software such as Adobe Photoshop, the leading image manipulation package, you've now got all the tools together in one box for generating captions and other metadata for digital images, prior to archiving.
Addison: Professionals as well as laypeople would be more than happy to provide more data. It just needs to be easier. We're advancing, but we haven't advanced in the ability to easily add this metadata and explain what we're doing. That's the next phase for the technology. From a technological point of view, I think it could easily happen. The cultural heritage community needs to communicate to the manufacturers what we need.
Eppich: Don't you think that it's easy now? You just have to sit down at a computer. From my own experience, I see the issue as enforcement. How do you make people add the metadata?
Addison: You can sit down at a computer today, and in a batch mode name all your photos from a project. But that's not easy enough for most people. Most people will put a descriptor on data in the field while they're recording it if given an easy way. But once they get home, they have so many images sitting on the computer that they don't get around to it. We need to make it easier. And we need to have the ability in the field.
Schmid: I have worked for some years on a conservation project of an early medieval church in the Roman Forum. It was excavated in 1900, and we have excellent black-and-white photographs from then that are extremely important references for us. But I am very worried about the long-term preservation and accessibility of our digital data. I don't think that archives and heritage agencies are prepared, at least in Italy, for the active maintenance that must be guaranteed. We already have some examples of digital documentation of wall painting conservation projects—now digital garbage—produced in the late 1980s with a huge amount of money and effort.
Addison: It's an enormous problem. Some of the first-generation laser scanner companies, for example, no longer exist, and you've got data in a proprietary format. Assuming that you can find data on the medium—disk, tape, et cetera—that is still readable, how do you open that data? And assuming you can get it off the medium, in what format is it? Is it understandable? With enough time and money, a programmer can probably decode it, but at an unrealistic cost. And, as Werner said, old photographic archives have more longevity today than most digital data.
Levin: This, of course, is an enormous issue that affects a variety of fields across the board, not simply documentation.
Addison: It impacts libraries and museums. I'm sure everyone in the cultural heritage community is thinking about it, but it's just sitting there, a looming, growing problem.
Schmid: Producing documentation that hopefully will still be accessible in one hundred years' time or more.
Addison: Yes. We started with the premise that one of the reasons we're documenting is to preserve the historic record.
Levin: What can the field do to protect this information, at least for the moment, since there is no immediate solution to the problem of long-term storage of digital information?
Bryan: As Alonzo suggested, representatives of the cultural heritage community need to encourage manufacturers' development to make sure our heritage requirements are considered at an early stage. Some of the manufacturers perceive cultural heritage as an interesting application, but because it tends not to have as much money associated with it as other applications might enjoy, it doesn't drive their development. Another issue my organization is starting to understand is how can we archive digital data properly? In the United Kingdom, there's an organization called the Archaeology Data Service that is taking the lead in developing ways of archiving digital data related to archaeological projects. They typically receive documentation data on a CD, download it onto a hard disk and then dispose of the original CD, as they say the modern hard disk is an easier way to manage, update, and back up the data. We haven't yet come up with a solution on how to archive laser-scanned data, but we've got projects, like Heritage3D, that are currently looking into this. I'm sure solutions will come along, but we need to communicate and disseminate them to make sure that when people are putting a project together, they consider the archive issue—the archive tends to be at the very end of a project, so it tends not to get much initial thought—to ensure that the products of documentation are usable in twenty to fifty years' time. This must be a priority in project planning.
Addison: I'm currently working on an initiative to address this. If we just rely on the technology developers to come up with something, that won't be enough. Working with UNESCO on redoing their information systems has made it apparent that there needs to be a shared global archive. The only real solution is to use the power of the Internet and large-scale databases to make some sort of communal archive where the costs of data upgrading and maintenance can be shared. People are told that CDs will last thirty years, so they think they're safe. But there's much more to it than that. The only way is to band together.