What can technology do to preserve New York City’s historic sites? 

It’s a real question, and one that has become ever-more pressing in recent years. We tend to think of our historical sites as unchangeable, protected, and set in stone — especially since most of the more prominent ones are made from it. But stone crumbles, and circumstances change. 

We lived this truth firsthand less than a decade ago, when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge tore through New York City. It flooded streets and subway tunnels, cut power, and put countless historical sites at risk for damage or outright destruction. The struggle to preserve these at-risk spaces is particularly challenging because, as one writer for Preservation New Jersey describes, “The [storm] recovery process is by nature not one that necessarily allows for the time, thoughtful planning, and holistic assessment that appropriate historic preservation requires. Anytime a historic resource is significantly damaged, it is threatened.”

But historical losses don’t always come with meteorological forecasts and time to prepare, as the global community saw when the Notre Dame cathedral burned

There’s a real risk; in the future, New York’s very history may be on the line. Luckily, though, technology can give us the tools we need to preserve it. 

3D Mapping for Preservation and Education

Traditionally, historians would map important sites using two-dimensional methods and non-digital tools. In recent years, however, 3D-scanning has risen to the forefront of the preservation conversation. In 2015, researchers from Japan’s Kanazawa University applied 3D scanning technology to map Shang Shu Di, a Chinese heritage site in the Fujian Province. They found that the 3D tools could provide a far more accurate and detailed record of historic buildings. Their findings, among other research, sparked a widespread shift towards digitally-powered preservation in the architectural and preservation communities. 

This mapping tech is already being used to preserve at-risk sites, albeit under more tragic and less experimental circumstances. 

In Syria, the Institute of Digital Archeology reproduced the 2,000-year-old Triumphal Arch, which was destroyed in Palmyra during ISIS occupation. At a third of the original’s size, the replica wasn’t an exact copy of the original monument; however, cutting-edge 3D technology gave historians the power to preserve the memory and importance of the site even when it was damaged beyond repair. Similarly, Somali Architecture uses 3D scanning tools to preserve historically significant locations that were destroyed during wartime by producing accurate and digitally-accessible 3D models.

“What this goes to show is that even destroyed heritage can be returned to us in some way—as long as there is proper documentation of it. […] We no longer have to be content with saying, ‘Well, it’s been destroyed, so it’s gone forever.’” Nada Hosking, Director of Programs and Partnerships at the Global Heritage Fund, commented in a recent article

However, she notes that while these digital tools are invaluable, they cannot replace the sites they scan. “Recreations and reconstructions may have the look and feel of a heritage site or monument, but they lack the historical depth of them, and we cannot neglect to preserve what history has handed down to us,” Hosking cautions.  

Her point is valid; however, after the fires at Notre Dame, it seems wiser to double up our digital scanning and preservation efforts, if only to protect the historical significance of a site against natural events that render real-world preservation impossible. 

VR Can Preserve Cultural Memory and Pass on Lessons 

Sometimes, the cultural memories of a place fade faster than the site itself. VR can provide a new way for historians to preserve stories from those who lived through significant periods in New York’s history — as well as offer a more immersive method of sharing those stories, even as their tellers fade into history. 

Take The Last Goodbye as an example. The VR experience debuted in 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival and served as a 17-minute testimony of what it was like to survive the Holocaust. The project’s guide and narrator, 85-year-old Pinchas Gutter, recounts the loss of his family and his time in Majdanek concentration and death camp. 

For Gutter, participating in the VR experience and being visible as a storyteller was crucial to his mission to ensure that knowledge of the Holocaust persists even as those who experienced it firsthand pass on. In an interview with Wired, he explained that “Without that living, breathing reminder, the Holocaust becomes easy to forget—or even deny. Without personal accounts […] it’s hard for people to accept its atrocities as ‘the gospel truth.’”

The Last Goodbye exemplifies a story that must be shared for the good of our current and future societies. It has historical significance and meaning on par with — even in excess of — a historical site. Stories like Gutter’s must be preserved; this mode of immersive, VR-powered journalism provides a means to do it. 

Few New Yorkers have Gutter’s experiences or recollections that are imbued with similar historical significance. However, they do have memories worth preserving and stories that are worth recording for the sake of the city’s cultural memory. They can provide insight into the social evolution of New York City and provide first-hand accounts of pivotal events that won’t be lost to age and time. 

New York may seem eternal when you walk its streets, but its historical sites and memories aren’t. We need to use technology to preserve its history — before it’s too late to do so.