Yale-developed Software Program Boosts Cultural Preservation Efforts

cultural preservation
A tablet that contains one of the most famous mathematical texts from ancient Mesopotamia, dated to the 19th or 18th century BCE. The tablet was scanned and digitized at Yale's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. (Courtesy of Yale Babylonian Collection)

Researchers from multiple disciplines can learn a lot from a single artifact. A tombstone, for instance, can tell historians about an era’s lettering patterns and its stone industry, while biologists can study the wildlife growing around it.

Experts from differing fields, though, have differing methodologies, and finding a way to coherently gather such a wide-ranging body of research has long proved a challenge for researchers. CHER-Ob, a flexible and expandable integrated platform, could be the answer.

Developed by Yale researchers in the Department of Computer Science and the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale’s West Campus, CHER-Ob is an open-source software program designed as a single virtual environment for collaborative cultural heritage research, accommodating many kinds of media.

Holly Rushmeier, a professor of computer science, said work on cultural artifacts is often stymied by the disjointed ways that different research teams collect and archive their findings. While current technologies focus on providing better tools for data representation and processing, she said, the importance of analysis and sharing hasn’t received much attention.

“A lot of people are juggling with a lot of different data types, and we need some coherent way to manage them,” she said.

CHER-Ob — led by Rushmeier and Stefan Simon, director of Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives at IPCH — grew out of an earlier project called Hyper-3D. Both projects were funded by the Seaver Foundation.

With CHER-Ob, research teams will not only have better access to contributions from individual members of their own team, but to those of previous research projects on the same subject.

“You do this whole project and save it, and then someone else can come along and not just read static reports, but interact with all of its assets,” Rushmeier said.

One innovation of CHER-Ob is the concept of the Cultural Heritage Entity (CHE), essentially a container for all the information collected about a particular item. It also features an annotation system designed to allow conservators to better track their own thoughts and share their perspectives.

“If you were talking about what software we would like to have, CHER-Ob would be my dream, where I can use any kind of data together in the same platform,” said Kiraz Goze Akoglu, a postdoctoral associate at IPCH and one of the developers of CHER-Ob.

Akoglu is also part of a research team studying the tombstones of Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, which was built in the late 18th century. As part of the project, used as a case study for CHER-Ob, the researchers collected multiple types of data, including aerial photographs, 3D models of the stones, density measurements of the tombstones, reflectance transformation imaging images, and topographies of the stones’ surfaces. CHER-Ob is set up so that additional research projects focusing on the cemetery can be merged into the CHE, allowing for a holistic approach to studying the cemetery.

“This is all in this one platform,” Simon said. “In the past, all those things were in my notebook, or in a different computer, or a different format — never in the same place. To link all that is terribly difficult. That’s why we say this is our dream.”

Simon said he expects CHER-Ob will also be very useful for another project known as Anqa, which involves digitally archiving and making accessible cultural heritage artifacts from areas in the world where they’re in danger. Acting as junior partner, Yale is working with the project’s coordinator, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and CyArk, a nonprofit organization that digitally preserves cultural heritage sites. The first efforts of Anqa will focus on the cultural heritage of Syria.