Specialist Column

The Significance, Challenges and Ideals of Digital Transformation for Cultural Properties and Museums
– Exemplified by the Digital x Hokusai Exhibition – (Part 1)

Iwao Kubota

Iwao Kubota
CEO and CTO of ArsTechne Corporation and ArsTechne Innovation

Iwao Kubota founded ArsTechne in 2012 with the goal of creating a digital culture industry. He developed "Re-Master Art," a next-generation digital archiving technology for cultural assets, centered on its patented DTIP technology, a high-definition, three-dimensional texture-image processing technology which reproduces 3D texture in as small as micrometer (μ) units. Since then, he has been involved in the digitalization of cultural properties and the production and utilization of authorized data for numerous museums and temples in Japan and abroad, including the Musée d'Orsay in France. From 2020, in collaboration with NTT East and NTT ArtTechnology, he was involved with creating and promoting the world's first distributed digital museum,"Digital x Hokusai.”
He is the author of the books The Realistic Viewing Experience. The Beauty of Orsay Reborn (MDN Corporation), Hokusai and Hiroshige Inheritance and Innovation of Aesthetics and Technology (Ric Telecom Co., Ltd.), and is the co-author of Toward Regional Revitalization: Digitalization of Culture and Art (Ric Telecom Co., Ltd.), etc.

In June of 2022, a reconstruction of a huge ceiling painting was unveiled in Shinjuku, Tokyo that attracted a large number of people. Phoenix Glaring in All Directions was the largest painting by Japan's world-renowned Ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai, who painted it in his later years. The original work was painted on the ceiling of the main hall of Gansho-in Temple in Obuse, Nagano Prefecture. Originally, this work could only be viewed by visiting the site, but it has now been reproduced in a luxurious and gorgeous style, including unfinished parts, over a distance of 240 km and a period of more than 170 years, thanks to meticulous research and consideration and the power of digital technology. In this two-part article, Iwao Kubota of ArsTechne, who was responsible for this project, talks about the role of DX for cultural properties and museums.

The Potential of Digital Transformation (DX) for Cultural Properties and Museums

Digital technology, which is evolving remarkably day by day, is bringing great benefits to our lives. At the same time, it also poses great risks: beyond inputs and outputs are living beings with emotions, and high-speed communication accelerates the speed and influence of information transmission. Bad money drives out good money.

For example, the evaluation of content in today's digital networks is mainly based on trends and quantity, but also risks spreading slander and anti-social information.
To avoid fundamental risks, new concepts of judging beauty, good and bad, individuality and quality are needed. However, these are contrasting concepts and cannot be judged without a comparative object. At the same time, the act of creating better "beauty, goodness, individuality, and quality" is often inefficient.

In quantifying human sensibilities such as beauty, goodness, individuality, and quality, we believe that the DX of cultural properties and museums can play a very important role. This is because it is necessary not only to accumulate flat and quantitative data, but also to accumulate and verify long-term historical data connected to the region. We need to figure out how to properly record and build databases and define the quality and value of the data. If accomplished, the DX of cultural properties and museums has the potential to contribute to the evolution of the country, the region, and the people who live there.

Historical events suggest this possibility. For example, the ancient Hellenistic empire, which boasted a vast cultural sphere unimaginable today, created the museion (the origin of the word "museum") as a mechanism for maintaining and developing culture, and produced many wise men by storing and studying a variety of information. They also placed replicas of sculptures and stone monuments in conquered areas to propagate their culture, thereby building identical cultural spheres over vast areas.

Cultural properties can be said to be a record of information about creativity tied to a region, including human emotions and even the state of mind. For the continuity and development of cities and communities, not only systems and laws but also databases for inheriting unique cultures are necessary. We believe that the promotion of DX in cultural properties and museums is a very important issue from the future-oriented perspective of Society 5.0 and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The Functions and Roles of Cultural Properties and Museums

Let us consider the direction of digital transformation or DX in terms of the functions and roles. Cultural properties are defined by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs as "precious national assets that were born and nurtured in the country's long history and have been protected and handed down to the present day.” The information should not only be about the actual objects, but also a variety of ancillary information such as lore, research, the creator's intention, and age.

We also believe that DX is extremely compatible with extending the museum's functionality. George-Henri Rivière, the first president of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) describes a museum as "a social institution that collects, preserves, and exhibits representative heritage of the natural and human world for the purpose of increasing knowledge, protecting and developing cultural and natural heritage, education and culture.”

This is highly compatible with the concept of the digital system itself, and if we consider it as an overarching system of INPUT = DATA BASE = PROCESSING = APPLICATION for the purpose of increasing, protecting, and developing knowledge, we can see the direction.

The Significance of DX for Cultural Properties and Museums

According to ICOM's definition of museology, a museum's mission has three conflicting vectors: 1. collection, conservation, and restoration; 2. programming, management, and research; and 3. public relations and education (open to the public).

Le Musée et La Vie", by Daniele Giraudy, Henri Bouilhet

However, as long as we stick to the original, there is a big challenge here. This is because of the so-called dilemma between preservation and exhibition. In other words, cultural properties are generally valuable, and if preservation is prioritized, they cannot be exhibited, and if exhibition is prioritized, the works will deteriorate.

This is where the potential for DX lies. For example, if the information in the original work can be digitalized as much as possible, and if we have the data and technology to create a digital replica that is indistinguishable from the original, the dilemma of preservation and disclosure can be resolved, and all three conflicting vectors can be greatly extended through the network. This is the first major significance.

In addition, cultural properties representing each country are highly recognized globally and are symbolic of the country's culture and national identity itself. However, cultural properties are original works, and the more important a piece is, the more valuable it is. Again, the role and impact of cultural properties is significant and must be passed on. In other words, the data must reflect as much as possible the original information, such as size, fine texture, light reflections, accurate color tones, and accompanying text, using techniques such as recording and processing, in addition to relying on output techniques. And since there is generally only one cultural property, there is always the risk of loss. Herein lies another significance of digitalized data. It means creating and storing data that can reproduce the original as closely as possible in case of emergency.

Challenges of DX for Cultural Properties and Museums

Of course, there are several barriers to realization.

One is the quality of data. The flat data currently in general use clearly lacks information. For example, a painting is a multilayered accumulation of pigments with different particle sizes and reflective structures, and a reproduction method that can record and recognize these pigments is needed.
There are also challenges in operational methods: the digitalization of museums that began in the 1990s was not built for the pursuit of ideals in DX, but rather from the necessity of utilization. In other words, it is data operation as intended to generate content for publishing and the Internet. There is no uniformity, and data of different tones and quality exist, and it is difficult to tell which data is truly close to the original. There are ponds here and there (I call this the POND type), and even today, despite the use of the latest output equipment such as high-definition projection and Interactive Viewers, the quality of the data is low, and there are many cases of large pieces of information missing from the original, or of data that has been changed into something else.

Digitalization of cultural properties and museums, which is currently common, is out of the original role and is not the form that we should aim for as a functional expansion through DX.

Furthermore, data (master data) that can faithfully reproduce valuable cultural properties, which should be called national assets, is itself a valuable asset and entails great risk in terms of management.

This article continues to Part 2.

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