How 3D objects and pictures of heritage can connect children worldwide

The ancient site of Palmyra, parts of which have reportedly now been destroyed by Islamic State. Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

Details are still emerging of the scale of destruction on the heritage site of Palmyra in Syria. Now work is beginning by archaeologists at Oxford and Harvard, determined to create a digital record of the ancient sites that remain. They are planning to get thousands of 3D cameras into Syria and Iraq that can be used by people on the ground to take 3D images of the countries’ cultural heritage.

This work is part of a growing trend to create heritage archives that can be used to support young people learning about world cultures. Online photo banks of heritage artefacts are growing. In the UK, there are quite a few heritage–based visual resources that can be used in the classroom, such as The British Museum’s project “teaching history with 100 objects” and the Wessex Archaeology collection.

Recently, special attention has been placed on 3D heritage visualisations, especially in the emerging area of 3D printing for education. The start-up project Museofabber aims to 3D-print museum collections and use them in the classrooms, inviting teachers to send in requests for objects to be printed. Other 3D printing initiatives include 3D miniatures made by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and 3D printed bones at the University of Western Florida.

Alongside 2D visual artefact collections and 3D printing, educational 3D games have also incorporated heritage artefacts, such as the Danish company Serious Games Interactive’s game for Danish school children featuring Viking heritage and artefacts in the city of Odense.

Using heritage to forge connections

Yet a question remains around the extent to which these educational projects can help connect children of different nations. In order to care for and understand heritage, we need to start with understanding and caring for people around the globe. The idea of using heritage in education to act as “connective tissues” among children and people around the world is especially important for nations that do not belong to the same geographical or cultural realm (for example, East and West). It’s also very pertinent for regions and nations that have experienced a history of conflict, or where heritage may have been destroyed.

Such inter-cultural exchange can challenge particular discourses about heritage, such as those that foster a single, nationalistic interpretation of history, national identity and artefacts or those that include negative images of other people and cultures as a whole. The scholar Amartya Sen argues that a singular, pure identity of any kind is an illusion, connected to many conflicts and barbarities in the world.

I am not calling here for uniformity in the way that heritage artefacts are interpreted, but rather tolerance and reconciliation through human diversity, emphasising more what nations have in common rather than what differentiates them. In line with these ideas, Oxfam GB has called for initiatives that use heritage artefacts in education to promote “positive images of people, places and artefacts”.

A recent article on The Conversation showed a list of world heritage sites in danger. In order to protect and cherish this and any other world heritage, we, educationalists around the world, first need to support children’s understanding about heritage sites in a way that provides multiple interpretations of the significance of artefacts and care for other human beings.

History and culture you can visualise and touch

That is why it is critical to incorporate heritage artefacts in teaching around the world. Children need to learn that the past is always subject to different interpretations, depending on who interprets it.

Pitoti: prehistoric Italian rock art. University of Cambridge, CC BY-ND

A recent study I undertook with colleagues at the University of Nottingham asked a selection of teachers in the Midlands region of England to consider the educational potential of Italian heritage artefacts using 2D and 3D visualisations. The artefacts were named “pitoti” by locals, meaning “little puppets” – a fascinating collection of rock art representing humans, animals, objects and abstract symbols engraved in the rock from prehistory to medieval times in Valcamonica in Italy’s Lombardy region. The British teachers we interviewed thought there was considerable potential in using pictures and 3D visualisations of international heritage across different subjects and activities in the curriculum.

Our research showed that education supported by pictures or 3D technology can help any heritage to cross national borders. Any artefact can be digitised and its history translated into many languages so that language does not act as a barrier for teachers and students in different countries. However, the real challenge is to reach and connect teachers and education systems that may have a limited access to technology or have different political and cultural views around heritage. But we need to start somewhere.

Only time can tell whether 3D technology will become globally accessible and affordable. However, photographs and illustrations can serve this purpose well if access to 3D technology or its cost is an issue. If educationalists around the world are supported to develop initiatives that embrace a more connected and pluralist way of using heritage artefacts in education, they can help connect children around the world. Such an education that fosters intercultural collaboration and dialogue around human artefacts is a small step towards world peace. Perhaps a distant dream, but hopefully an achievable future.