How high-tech replicas can help save our cultural heritage

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every day, priceless cultural objects around the world are threatened by war, looting, the impact of humans and the passage of time.

But one organization in Spain is taking an innovative approach to understanding and preserving that heritage, by copying it.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

It's part of our ongoing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tomb of Seti I, ancient Egyptian pharaoh, we watched it being milled, printed, and set. But we're not in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and certainly not in the 13th century B.C.

This is a workshop called Factum Arte in an eastern suburb of Madrid, Spain, filled with art and historical works of all kinds, with one unusual thing in common.

Everything in this large warehouse is a reproduction, a copy. But the work that goes on here raises profound questions about just what is real, and what it means to preserve an object.

ADAM LOWE, Founder, Factum Arte: We're making copies of copies.

JEFFREY BROWN: The man who leads Factum, with evangelical fervor, is British artist Adam Lowe.

ADAM LOWE: The state of the art is that we can make something that is identical to the original, under normal viewing conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is the idea that you're creating something that is, at least for the viewing experience, as real as the original?

ADAM LOWE: The idea is that you can get someone to understand the complexity of an object, and you can get them to read it in many ways through encountering facsimile, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Facsimile, an exact copy or reproduction. Factum calls its work digital mediation, and it operates as a kind of renaissance workshop of people with different skills: software designers, technicians, conservators, architects, artists, artisans.

Together, they make copies with a cause, not to mislead, but to understand and help preserve. One prominent example, this copy of a winged lion from Nimrud. It was cast from sculptures now in European museums that were taken from the site in Iraq in the 19 century. Last year, ISIS destroyed much of what's left at Nimrud itself.

ADAM LOWE: So, in that strange twist of fate, everything that was removed in the 19th century is the only evidence that's left. And we would love to be able to send facsimiles, like this, back to Nimrud to take up their place again on the site, so that you still keep that connection between …

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, that wouldn't make up for the destruction, right?

ADAM LOWE: Nothing makes up for destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Factum first attracted international attention in 2007 by creating a replica of a huge painting by Paolo Veronese from 1563, The Wedding at Cana.

The original painting now hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris, but it got there as a gift of Napoleon, whose forces ripped it from its original home, a church in Venice. Factum's experts studied, scanned, slowly recreated it, and finally put it, the copy, that is, into its old home.

ADAM LOWE: Many people started to question about whether the experience of seeing it in its correct setting, with the correct light, in dialogue with this building that it was painted for, is actually more authentic than the experience of seeing the original in the Louvre.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lowe had another major win in his recreation of King Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, built next to the original site.

ADAM LOWE: It's a test between one scanning system.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Madrid, we got a tour of some key parts of the process, which begins far away from this building, with the scanning of the actual objects in the field.

That team is led by architect Carlos Bayod, using a laser scanner developed at Factum known as the Lucida.

CARLOS BAYOD, Lucida Scanner: We are capable now of recording the surface of a painting, for example, and obtaining data that are very close, that has very close correspondence to reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: How close?

CARLOS BAYOD: Well, in terms of resolution, we are talking about 100 microns, so one point of information every 10th of a millimeter.

JEFFREY BROWN: The data about the surface, even of something we think of as being flat, is used to create a detailed relief map of the object, without ever touching and potentially harming it, to understand how any intervention or restoration might play out.

CARLOS BAYOD: We believe this information should be very useful for conservators, people who have the duty of taking care of the works of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: To go further and build a facsimile of the work, in this case the tomb of Seti I, the data is crunched and fed into milling machines, computer numeric code routers, or 3-D printers to create the relief.

In another room, using a Factum-built printer run by Rafa Rachewsky, the photographed image is etched onto a custom-created surface known as a skin.

RAFA RACHEWSKY, Factum Arte: And it's very thin, as you can see. It stretches enough so you can lay it onto the relief, and then you can place exactly where you want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rachewsky carefully aligns the printed skin with the relief, and using contact glue:

RAFA RACHEWSKY: You want to be sure that you get everywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you want it to hold for several thousand years, right?

(LAUGHTER)

RAFA RACHEWSKY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's then vacuum-sealed.

RAFA RACHEWSKY: As the air is coming out, these two are joining together.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, now it's really fusing into one.

RAFA RACHEWSKY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result, a test panel of the tomb of Seti I, representing less than 1 percent of what will be a full-scale replica, to eventually go on display next to the original in Luxor.

And why build a replica of the tomb? Because, says Adam Lowe, mass tourism, our own need to see the original in a place never designed for our biological presence, has its consequences.

ADAM LOWE: But what we're really asking the visitors to do is to enter into a new contract for preserving things for the future, because by going to see something that was designed to last for eternity, but never to be visited, you're contributing to its destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is expensive work, developing new tools and techniques to take on whatever challenges the world of conservation throws at it.

To finance it, Factum builds custom pieces for contemporary artists, like this piece for Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem, which combines the dome of a mosque with a soldier's helmet, and will be installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Factum is full of wonders, not the least of which was getting into a contraption built here called a Veronica scanner, 12 cameras taking 96 high-resolution photos of all angles of my head in four seconds. After an hour-and-a-half of 3-D printing, my very own small bust.

Oh, my goodness.

As technology advances and laser scans are increasingly replaced by this kind of photogrammetry, it's not hard to imagine a world in which anyone can photograph an object and render their own model in 3-D.

ADAM LOWE: But I can imagine many things, so I can imagine I can take a photograph, as we're doing, and I could recreate something from a photograph.

I can imagine other people might do it for less noble reasons or for straightforward commercial reasons, but that's not a reason for not doing it. The recording critical, because unless you record it, you don't know how it's changing, you don't know what people's presence is going to it, you don't know the effects of time on the surface.

JEFFREY BROWN: While Adam Lowe is most focused now on pushing conservation techniques, he's also challenging how we think about copies and their relationship to originals, the very idea of originality.

The classical sculptures we know, he points out, are almost all copies of an original. And all those masterpiece paintings we love?

ADAM LOWE: You go to the National Gallery in London, you go to the National Gallery in Washington, and every single one of those paintings has a complex history.

It's probably restored once or twice. It's probably had more than that by certain dubious dealers who've tarted it up to sell it. So, there's a whole history of what happens on a painting that's constantly changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's no original when it comes to a work of art, you're suggesting.

ADAM LOWE: No, I'm suggesting there is seldom a very clear notion of conception.

The way we see and understand cultural heritage changes over time. It always has, and it always will. And the way we value it, the way we look at it, the way we appreciate it, the way we display it, the way we collect it, all of these things are constantly subject to change.

JEFFREY BROWN: A change at Factum Arte's workshop happening before our eyes.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Madrid, Spain.

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