Building Digital Preservation Capacity in the Middle East Through Training

Discussing Training in Lebanon and the Future of Project Anqa with CyArk Field Manager, Ross Davison

by Makenna Murray
July 28, 2016

Heritage across Syria is at an extreme risk of damage, looting and destruction. CyArk is working to digitally preserve these irreplaceable treasures before they are lost. Your donation today will enable us to transfer our knowledge and skills to heritage professionals in Syria so that they can continue to document their heritage and share it with the world in the face of destrutcion. 

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Makenna Murray, Development Officer: Hey Ross, welcome back. You have been all over this month. Tell us a little bit about the last leg of that journey.

Ross Davison, Field Manager: Yeah, I have been in three or four time zones, it’s crazy. My latest trip though was a great way to cap a season of travel. I was in Beirut, Lebanon hosting a training for the CyArk-Yale-ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) initiative, Project Anqa, which aims to undertake emergency recording of at-risk sites throughout the Middle East. The program was supported in part by UNESCO as part of the EU funded project for the Emergency Safeguarding of Syrian Cultural Heritage and was the follow-up to a training held earlier this year.The first training was hugely successful and the first group has already sent back data from Damascus. It’s incredible!

Read more about the January 2016 Training here.

Not only is Damascus heavily impacted, but the whole historic district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Working with local professionals is extremely effective and allows us to archive data from otherwise unreachable areas and to share it with the world.
This secondary training was taking those core set of field skills and digging in to four areas that are really important- creating architectural drawing, creating models, turning panoramic imagery into a useful state, creating animations and other deliverables that they can show off and also use functionally across any of the sites that they manage personally or governmentally. 

“Unlike a lot of documentation efforts that are getting publicity, where foreign nationals will enter, document a couple of sites and they leave, Anqa aims to really transfer CyArk’s knowledge and skill directly to those who will be the most impactful implementers.” –Ross Davison


MM: Who was this training made up of?

RD: Well importantly, this group was coming from all over the country—Homs and Aleppo in addition to Damascus. But it was also not just architects and engineers it was conservators and archaeologists, each bringing a different set of skills and expertise and a different personal focus for their work.

Four of the five original trainees returned for the second round to get a refresher on the basics and get into more technical work as well. And those return students proved to be invaluable. It was a much larger group this time 15 people rather than 5 last time, each with varying levels of English proficiency, so having a group of people who was already knowledgeable and could pick up in some of the areas where even our simultaneous translation was failing us because the technical jargon and the detailed processes was a huge help.

It was also extremely rewarding to see people who were trained just months prior, talking like experts about the process.

“If you’re able to, make a donation to the program as well because, it’s investing in our future.” -Ross Davison


MM: So are those four return trainees taking a lead in field work as well?

RD: Absolutely. As soon as I got back to the US, the first thing that came through was a whatsapp message from one participant who said “I am putting together a write up on all of your presentations and materials and I am starting to make forms to help our department.” He had requests of me for tutorials and other things that would help them to pass this knowledge along to their colleagues. They are absolutely owning the process and diving in head first.

Now that we have been able to train more people covering more areas of the country, I expect we will see this grow even further as the process trickles down to other staff. They are building a real brain trust over there. We provide them with that basic training and they are running with it and working it into their own workflows across all those departments that they represent.

Thanks to ICOMOS, there are dozens of sites in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs that have been identified and that are in great need of documentation and they are steadily checking off sites. 

“They are absolutely owning the process and diving in head first.” -Ross Davison


MM: It sounds like ICOMOS and UNESCO were a big part of the team, are there any other partners that you want to thank?

RD: Its true, UNESCO and ICOMOS have been amazing partners. UNESCO’s Beirut office in particular has worked miracles. They ran point on coordinating all logistics in the country and coordinated bringing Syrian professionals to Beirut and back. 

The Sursock museum in Beirut has also been twice a partner now. It’s a great case study for us since it is a very representative structure and gives people the chance to try out their skills on a structure they might encounter in the field and troubleshoot some of those common problems.

Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquates and Museums (DGAM) has been a fantastic partner as well. Since they are the managers and protectors of most of Syria’s great historic sites, they are an integral part of the project—providing access to sites and their incredible employees. They have an amazingly tough job these days. For a pretty heavily impacted organization, working in many cases on the literal front lines, they have been amazingly receptive and beyond resourceful and that is thanks to the tireless work of their incredible staff who joined us in Beirut and who are putting themselves at risk to preserve these sites.

Last and certainly not least, Yale is an amazing partner on the academic side, providing annotation and an open-access database for vetted researchers to use the data. Their role is going to really start to grow as more and more data starts coming back from the field.

MM: What is next for Project Anqa and The Syrian Team?

RD: The Syrian team are going to keep documenting sites and training staff internally. All of historic Damascus is a World Heritage Site and that alone could keep you busy for years. The vast majority of the DGAM staff are based in Damascus. It is a functioning city rather than Aleppo and Homs which are far more risky. Once everyone is as well-versed as the original group, it will be easier to get in and out of risky sites quickly while capturing great data, but there’s definitely a learning curve—we still argue about who is the best at scanning in our office.

The future of Anqa is expanding these trainings. We want to host trainings in Iraq and Yemen and Libya   to grow a network of digital preservationists working across the region that are bearing witness to the unprecedented loss of their heritage.

Unlike a lot of documentation efforts that are getting publicity, where foreign nationals will enter, document a couple of sites and they leave, Anqa aims to really transfer CyArk’s knowledge and skill directly to those who will be the most impactful implementers—those on the ground who are out their daily working to protect these sites. It’s interesting because when you look at who is being put at risk and who is benefiting, you see locals taking the most extreme risks, not only are they risking bodily harms by going to known conflict zones, but by the very nature of working with those foreign nationals, they are exposing themselves to punishment by nationalists.

We are making sure that they are walking away from a training with a thorough understanding of the process both in theory and practice so that they could apply it to a different machine or a different site and we are staying in constant contact and providing remote support. We are also able to take on some of the heavier processing and return completed work back to them that will let them take action at some of these sites.

MM: Are you optimistic for the future of heritage in the Middle East?

RD: Yeah, I am optimistic. Working with groups with UNESCO Beirut and the DGAM showcases the desire to see this work done, so it’s never a matter of lack of interest but lack of funds. While they only have a single machine, they are limited in the scale that they can achieve, but with more equipment, it will scale up quickly. I am hopeful that people will want to be supportive of something like Anqa that is working to truly enable those who are the last line of defense for these sites and that is working to bring that information to light for the public and for educators which is exactly what we aim to do.

There is a real opportunity for an individual to make a difference here. First, get educated about the situation. Understand what is at risk and why and who the big players are. If you’re able to, make a donation to the program as well because, it’s investing in our future.  

Trainees test their knowledge of settings for the 360 camera
Field Sessions were conducted at the Sursock Museum
Trainees work on data processing at the UNESCO Beirut Offices