31.05.2022 | Emergency Aid

How to save digital works of art from war

154 cultural sites in Ukraine have already been partially or completely destroyed. To protect as many cultural assets as possible from destruction, it is not just a matter of bringing tangible objects to safety. Digital archives must also be preserved. OeAW digitization expert Sebastian Majstorovic explains how this works.

The organization Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online operates cultural disaster control on the Internet by securing as many digital collections threatened by war as possible. © Vlad Kholodnyi

Cultural assets are destroyed in every war, whether a warring party wants to destroy a country's cultural heritage or to transfer looted goods to their own museums. What is often forgotten, however, is that it is not only physical museum objects that are at risk. When servers are destroyed, intangible cultural heritage is also irretrievably lost.

Sebastian Majstorovic from the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) therefore conducts cultural disaster control on the Internet with a group of heritage experts, archivists, researchers, IT specialists and many volunteers in the organization Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online. "Many cultural workers in Ukraine are still busy digitizing – despite the barrage of bombs. To do this, they need devices such as cameras and scanners so that they can upload as much as possible before any attack occurs," said Majstorovic in an interview.

Cultural institutions as targets

Many cultural sites have been destroyed by the bombing of Ukraine. Do you have specific numbers on this?

Sebastian Majstorovic: We have a working group that just observes what has been attacked and destroyed. But because we do not have all the information, we use the official figures from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. According to their information, 154 cultural sites have been partially or completely destroyed.

Isn't there also a "no-strike list" of cultural sites that are explicitly not allowed to be attacked?

Majstorovic: This list was created by an organization that works closely with UNESCO. Blue Shield International works to protect cultural assets from the effects of war and disasters and is based in The Hague. At the same time, this list can also be used to identify targets for attack. We are clearly told from Ukraine that cultural sites are being chosen as targets. It's about weakening the morale of the civilian population and spreading terror.

"Many cultural workers in Ukraine are still busy digitizing - despite the barrage of bombs."

What is your job?

Majstorovic: We take care of the evacuation of the digital inventory. Many cultural workers in Ukraine are still busy digitizing – despite the barrage of bombs. To do this, they need devices such as cameras and scanners so that they can upload as much as possible before any attack occurs.

Volunteers back up websites in part manually

The digital situation is different in every institution. Isn't it difficult to find a uniform approach?

Majstorovic: We have deliberately focused on web archiving, because websites contain everything that should be made publicly available. The first step is to record the page fully automatically with the Web Recorder software. If that doesn't work, we'll try to change the configuration of the software. If that doesn't work either, programmers write a new program just for that website. We had that with the Odessa University rare prints collection. If that also fails, we have numerous volunteers clicking through homepages manually. There is a web recorder add-on for Chrome that even a layman can install, and it will record every page you open.

What has been saved so far?

Majstorovic: There is an online museum about the men sent to the reactor at Chernobyl to clean up. On this website we had to click on each profile separately. Five people worked just on that for over a week. That's what is special about our project: we have committed ourselves to not giving up. If necessary, we also rely on manual archiving.

Backup plans for digital collections

Has this principle also been applied in Syria and Iraq?

Majstorovic: So far, these were rather retroactive attempts at reconstruction. We have received numerous reactions from cultural institutions and are in contact with UNESCO and ICON, the International Council of Museums. Many institutions have only now discovered with horror that they have no backup plans for their digital collections. It wasn't on their radar that servers are as delicate as real art objects. In large corporations, it has long been routine for data to be backed up outside the building, and for there to be several providers who archive. Of course, this involves additional costs that are difficult to cover in the area of culture. But we need systematic collection of the world's digital cultural heritage.

Do you also provide storage space?

Majstorovic: Yes, if Ukrainian institutions approach us. However, it is currently very difficult to keep in touch with researchers. They are either displaced, at the front, or working under great pressure to save collections.