By François LeBlanc and Rand Eppich

Today the world is losing its architectural and archaeological cultural heritage faster than it can be documented. Human-caused disasters, such as war and uncontrolled development, are major culprits. Natural disasters, neglect, and inappropriate conservation are also among the reasons that our heritage is vanishing.

In Afghanistan we have lost to armed conflict archaeological remains and architecture for which we have limited or no documentation. At the January 2004 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Abdul Wasey Feroozi, director general of Afghanistan's National Institute of Archaeology, reported on the impact of war upon his country's cultural heritage. Among the places destroyed in recent decades, in addition to the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, were the Buddhist temple of Tepe Shutur-e-Hadda and the tower of Chakari, an important monument from the first century. "In a war-stricken country," stated Feroozi, "one can repair or even renovate roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, et cetera, but lost and destroyed cultural heritage can never be rehabilitated or renovated."

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Contemporary urban developments can also wipe out centuries of unrecorded history. On the outskirts of Mexico City, the pre-Columbian Aztec site of Xochimilco is under threat because of urban sprawl; information from earlier periods of history is likely to be lost with rapid modern construction. In sites such as this, it is possible to use the latest technology to record information about the archaeological remains, either to capture the knowledge before construction proceeds or to alter the course of development. This happens too rarely.

And what of Mother Nature? At the end of August 2005, along the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the city of New Orleans and other historic cities and towns were savaged by Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the tragic and extensive loss of life, the hurricane damaged or destroyed countless historic structures, public and private, altering forever the architectural landscape of the communities that suffered under the force of the storm. Although the impact on the region's cultural heritage is still being assessed, significant damage clearly occurred, including the eradication of some historic cityscapes.

The stories go on, year after year, decade after decade. Unfortunately, so does the loss of cultural heritage for which we have little or no lasting record.

While we should strive to preserve as much as possible of our architectural and archaeological cultural heritage, we cannot save everything. One option is to document heritage before it is lost. A permanent record will transmit knowledge of these places to future generations. Equally important, documentation is the thread that runs through the entire process of cultural heritage conservation. Indeed, documentation can help keep heritage from being destroyed or forgotten, and it serves to communicate, not only to conservation professionals but to the public at large, the character, value, and significance of the heritage.

Defining Documentation

Documentation of cultural heritage, broadly defined, includes two main activities: (1) the capture of information regarding monuments, buildings, and sites, including their physical characteristics, history, and problems; and (2) the process of organizing, interpreting, and managing that information. Reasons for engaging in documentation include:

  • assessing the values and significance of the heritage in question;
  • guiding the process of conservation;
  • providing a tool for monitoring and managing heritage while creating an essential record; and
  • communicating the character and importance of heritage.
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Archaeological sites offer good examples of how documentation contributes to heritage conservation. Partial foundations, incomplete walls, and scattered debris found at an excavation can make it difficult to interpret. In northern Israel at the archaeological site of Tel Dan, there is one of the earliest known examples of a complete arch, the archway of the Canaanite gate—dated to the middle Bronze Age (mid-eighteenth century BCE). Without proper documentation by archaeologists and surveyors, it is almost impossible to distinguish the mud brick arch from the similarly colored surrounding earth. Proper documentation has also enabled archaeologists to date the arch accurately, demonstrating that this building technology existed far earlier than previously thought—thus according the site greater significance. Good documentation of a site allows for a better understanding of its value—historical, scientific, aesthetic, social, and economic. Recognition of a site's value and significance is often the first step toward its conservation.

Once conservation begins, those involved in the process need access to comprehensive information about the site. This information—obtained through documentation—allows conservation professionals to record current conditions, consider appropriate conservation options, plan interventions, apply treatments, and, finally, measure the results of their efforts. In 2001 a team from the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation did just that at New Orleans's historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (which reportedly survived the city's flooding with relatively minor damage). Each above-ground tomb was evaluated for its original design, date of construction, state of conservation, and subsequent changes and repairs. This information led to emergency stabilization, to preliminary treatment, and, eventually, to conservation. It also allowed the limited resources available to be directed toward those monuments that were both significant and in advanced states of deterioration. Good documentation saves both time and money by helping prioritize resources and by preventing a duplication of effort.

After conservation intervention, documentation provides the basis for monitoring, management, and routine maintenance of a site, as well as a record for posterity. A record of interventions is indispensable for conservation treatment, as it establishes baseline conditions that inform future evaluations and retreatments. Heritage sites undergo continuous change, and the availability of a concise description of previous problems and interventions makes it easier to identify emergency situations and to react with appropriate investigation and treatment. It also allows managers to budget for ongoing conservation needs. In addition, actions taken today become part of a place's history; future generations must know how conservation was carried out. Conservation interventions are critical moments in the life of a building or site, and a careful record can preserve information that may otherwise be lost. For example, during a 1985 project to upgrade the electrical wiring in Windsor Castle, photographic documentation of the State Apartments was conducted. When a disastrous fire in 1992 destroyed much of St. George's Hall and the Grand Reception Room, English Heritage was able to use this documentation to help guide subsequent restoration work.

The importance of documentation extends beyond its use as a tool for conservation and a record for posterity. It is also the means by which information can be communicated—information that can help educate the public regarding the values a site holds and the ways in which conservation has been conducted.

Communication from the public can also impact the conservation of a site and is, therefore, an important element of documentation. In the city of Vienna, for example, the public contributes to the city's conservation via the Internet by submitting information that defines or increases the historic value of certain properties. In many instances, the public is the first to raise the alarm about sites that are under threat from alteration or demolition.

What Is Needed

How is the process of documentation embraced internationally? The short answer is—not well at all. Although the importance of documentation for cultural heritage has been stressed in many national and international instruments—from the Athens Charter of 1933 to the Venice Charter of 1964 to Australia's Burra Charter, as well as dozens of other recent declarations and conventions—documentation remains inadequately employed.

In 2002 the Getty Conservation Institute convened a meeting of experts in Los Angeles to discuss documentation. Among the thirty international participants representing various disciplines and regions, there was general agreement that the situation required review and improvement. There was similar consensus at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The speakers at that meeting generally concurred that the field lacks standards and guidelines, as well as communication among professionals. They also agreed that there are limited resources, incomplete tools, and insufficient training.

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Few international standards for recording and documentation of cultural heritage are in place. Conservation documentation varies in form, quality, and quantity from one project and professional to the next. If there were international standards for the recording of conditions such as the identification of cracks, bulges, humidity, or other unstable conditions, then professionals could communicate more easily, saving both time and money. Even the format for dates is unresolved. The International Organization for Standards format for dates (yyyy/mm/dd) has yet to be adopted by the conservation field. One can easily understand the importance of such a basic standard in a world of databases.

Background research prepared by historians and investigation plans developed by conservation architects, if standardized, could be used more easily by other professionals to prepare treatments and architectural proposals. Currently, the symbols used to draw different materials, various conditions, and subsequent treatments are left to individual professionals. While other disciplines have such basic standards, the field of heritage conservation, in which projects are often seen as unique, does not. In fact, there is a great deal of commonality in conservation, and some standardization would help.

Conservation management guidelines exist, but few of these refer to the importance of recording and documentation as activities that exist throughout the conservation process. Knowledge and understanding are prerequisites for good heritage management and for the planning of sensitive and appropriate conservation interventions. Documentation is the medium through which this knowledge is recorded, collected, and stored. Without guidelines, communication is more difficult.

Currently, best practices for documentation are not widely exchanged inside the conservation field. There are few international periodicals or Web sites that allow experts to share their knowledge. In addition, less than satisfactory levels of human and financial resources are dedicated to documentation activities.

Outside the field, decision makers are often unaware of the purposes and benefits of documentation, and therefore, they underfund it. If these benefits were more effectively communicated, greater resources could be allocated, and duplication of work could be reduced, decreasing the cost of conservation. Such additional recording would provide better understanding of the resource, its features, and its condition, and would increase knowledge about it. The result would be a higher quality of conservation practice.

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There is a good array of low-cost recording tools and methodologies that are not being systematically applied in the conservation field. In addition, new information is not widely shared, and many Web resources concerning recording and documentation of cultural heritage are not generally known. There is a need to make greater use of low-cost and low-tech tools and methodologies that could satisfy a significant portion of the recording and documentation needs in many developing countries. For example, simple scaled and semi-rectified photography of relatively flat surfaces (e.g., floor mosaics, building elevations, stone patterns, etc.) can be achieved with an inexpensive digital camera that has a grid integrated into its viewer, or with other simple equipment or techniques used in conjunction with the camera. The relatively low level of accuracy produced by these methods is acceptable for preliminary recording or uncomplicated conservation work.

There is also an urgent need to develop and adapt computer technologies and advanced technological tools to help deal with the sheer number of sites, buildings, collections, and information that need to be preserved. New technologies can certainly help reduce the cost and time necessary to record and document cultural heritage. At the same time, significant research and investigation are required to ensure that the digital record created by these new technologies is preserved in the long term, given the constantly changing technological environment.

While a growing number of information users are requesting training in documentation, there are only a handful of institutions that offer courses in this field. The amount of knowledge needed to document historic resources adequately is substantial. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, institutions in the world currently offering this comprehensive training specifically for conservation.

What Is to Be Done

Despite the many problems in the documentation field, there are institutions and organizations working toward improvement in each of these areas.

CIPA Heritage Documentation—the International Committee for Architectural Photogrammetry—has held biennial meetings for several decades and has published the results of these meetings in order to improve various aspects of recording and documentation. The symposium's theme in 2005 was international cooperation to save the world's cultural heritage. It was intended to underscore the concept that only international cooperation between public and private endeavors can provide effective solutions to safeguard and preserve cultural heritage for future generations.

In 2002 CIPA, ICOMOS, and the GCI teamed up to create the RecorDIM Initiative. One goal of this five-year partnership is to develop principles and guidelines for creating and using heritage documentation. The initiative and its publications are designed to aid communication among information users (e.g., researchers, conservation specialists, and project managers) and information providers (e.g., photographers, heritage recorders, photogrammetrists, and surveyors). It is also intended to assist decision makers in governments, institutions, and education to adopt and follow principles and guidelines. One planned publication for practicing conservators, architects, and engineers will include case studies that illustrate the availability and application of a wide variety of tools.

There are other initiatives and organizations working toward better guidelines, standards, and communication. Among them is the International Council on Archives, which met in the United Arab Emirates in November 2005 to discuss issues such as electronic records, the preservation of archival records, and education and training. ARMA International, a leading authority on managing records and information, continues to offer resources such as legislative and regulatory updates, standards and best practices, technology trends and applications, classroom and Web-based education, marketplace news and analysis, and books and videos on managing records and information.

English Heritage, the custodian of cultural heritage in England, has also put resources into developing new tools for documentation. In addition, it has published a manual for performing metric surveys, created standards for requesting laser scanning services, and developed new software to help with recording buildings and sites. The Forum on Information Standards in Heritage groups together U.K. and Irish institutions that are working on creating standards. These efforts will help create consistent records and find the tools to index and retrieve heritage information.

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Last, several training initiatives have been conducted by international heritage organizations. In 2003 and 2005, ICCROM held advanced courses in documentation for midcareer professionals and educators from around the world. These four-week courses covered simple techniques, such as hand measurements, and more high-tech methods, including global positioning system (GPS) technology and photogrammetry (obtaining reliable measurements by photography). UNESCO's World Heritage Centre also held documentation courses in 2004 for participants from Arab countries. The World Monuments Fund and the GCI have been conducting a series of training courses to assist the Iraqis in mitigating threats and in repairing damage sustained by their cultural heritage during war. A large part of this program is recording the damage and threats to sites, in order to prioritize interventions, given the limited resources available.

Even with these organizations and their efforts, significant challenges still exist. The sheer number of cultural sites that are without sufficient documentation is staggering. Some estimate that only a third of the eight hundred sites on the World Heritage List are adequately documented. Certain situations, such as underwater archaeology and cultural landscapes, pose new issues and challenges.

We cannot stop the loss of cultural heritage. But we can do a better job of documenting heritage. When conflicts, disasters, and uncontrolled development occur, the only remaining evidence of the lost heritage is often documentation. By creating standards and guidelines, dedicating additional resources, developing new tools, and increasing training efforts, we can begin to do a better job at highlighting the heritage that we have and increase the possibility that efforts will be taken to save it. It is a challenging mission—but not an impossible one.

François LeBlanc is head of Field Projects for the GCI. Rand Eppich, a project specialist with Field Projects, manages the GCI's Digital Laboratory.

Web Links to Selected Institutions and Organizations Involved in Documentation

CIPA Heritage Documentation, The International Committee for Architectural Photogrammetry

The International Council on Archives

ARMA International

English Heritage

The Forum on Information Standards in Heritage

The RecorDIM Initiative, A Project of CIPA, ICOMOS, and the GCI