Ukrainians use 3D technology to preserve hundreds of cultural artifacts in a digital archive, away from Russian attacks

A Russian tank blown up near Kiev, a monument to Ukrainian writer Borys Hrinchenko, an apartment building destroyed by artillery, and a slide in a graffiti-covered children’s playground.

In Ukraine, these objects are found among hundreds of landmarks, cultural sites, monuments and everyday things that civilians have scanned on cell phones through an app called Polycam. The app’s software generates a detailed 3D model that will live permanently in a digital archive as part of an initiative called Backup Ukraine.

The project, launched in April shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, aims to digitally preserve the country’s cultural heritage, away from the reach of Russian attacks. The scans are of such high quality, the creators of the project say, that they can be projected into a physical space to be explored for educational purposes and can also be used to reconstruct destroyed cultural artifacts.

Backup Ukraine is the brainchild of VICE’s creative agency, Virtue Worldwide, which has partnered with Blue Shield Denmark, a group that helps protect global cultural heritage sites, and the Danish National Commission of UNESCO.

“What we wanted to fight against was the willful destruction of Ukrainian heritage as an act of terror, of national intimidation. This proved very, very real,” said Tao Thomsen, Virtue Worldwide creative director and co-creator of Backup Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has documented 367 war crimes against the country’s cultural heritage as of May 27, including the destruction of 29 museums, 133 churches, 66 theaters and libraries, and a centuries-old Jewish cemetery, according to its website.

With Backup Ukraine, for the first time in history a country’s artifacts are documented in augmented reality during an ongoing war, a precedent that has sparked conversations about how this technology can be used in other countries in conflict or war. The team is also exploring the possibility of creating 3D models of destroyed churches and buildings that have not been scanned, using digital footage from the past.

“We have set a precedent here in terms of protecting cultural artifacts and a model, a system that people can use to move forward as conflict develops,” said Iain Thomas, creative director of the group at Virtue Worldwide and co. -creator of the project.

“One of the most surprising things is that people scan monuments, statues and sculptures, but they also scan small aspects of their life – things they own, like and appreciate,” said Thomas.

Ukraine’s backup gets underway

The Backup Ukraine team is hiring local project managers to “slowly hand over the property to the Ukrainians themselves,” and 150 people have joined as volunteers, scanning up to 10 pieces of culturally relevant heritage every day, Thomsen said. Since its launch, over 6,000 people in Ukraine have downloaded the Polycam app to access the digital archive.

Max Kamynin, a Kyiv resident and architect, says he volunteered for the initiative about a month ago and devotes three to four days a week to run scans, during which he aims to create 15 to 20 high-quality scans . Before each day of scanning, Kamynin makes a list of monuments, historic buildings or objects destroyed by Russian forces and follows the route, he says.

“Now, a lot of big monuments are covered in bags, so I can’t scan them. But it doesn’t bother me because Ukraine is very rich in history and you can always find something interesting to scan,” he said.

It took Kamynin about an hour to scan the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Pirogoshcha, a Kiev Orthodox cathedral, originally built in 1132. It was reportedly the first building in Kiev built entirely of brick without the use of stone. church site.The church was destroyed in 1935 during the Soviet era but was later rebuilt in the late 1900s.

Kamynin performed a 3D scan of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Pirogoshcha, a Kiev Orthodox cathedral originally built in 1132. Credit: Courtesy of Maxim Kamynin

“Large buildings are more difficult to scan than sculptures or monuments,” Kamynin said. “You have to go around the whole building and, if possible, use a drone to improve the scan.”

Backup Ukraine creators say it has turned into a movement, as Ukrainian civilians increasingly recognize the importance of protecting their country’s history, art and culture and look to its future.

“We advise people not to scan in areas where there is an immediate conflict,” said Thomsen. “There is a risk of error every time you go out in a country that is very much at war. We can’t ignore that. Yet, people still come out by the dozen every day to scan. This to me shows that the national pride of this it’s a really strong driver. “

Hundreds of cultural heritage sites destroyed

Since the start of the war, the Ukrainian cultural sector has rushed to protect churches, museums, statues and works of art that continue to suffer damage.

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has appealed to UNESCO to remove Russia from its membership because it has destroyed “so many monuments, cultural and social sites in Europe since World War II,” CNN previously reported.

Kamynin created a 3D scan of one of the destroyed buildings in Borodyanka, Ukraine using the Polycam app. Credit: Courtesy of Maxim Kamynin

One of the destroyed buildings in Borodyanka which was 3D scanned.

One of the destroyed buildings in Borodyanka which was 3D scanned. Credit: Courtesy of Maxim Kamynin

Backup Ukraine leaders are in regular contact with the Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative – a Ukrainian initiative under the Ministry of Culture – and are coordinating with 3D scanning professionals, in Ukraine and around the world, to scan to a faster pace and larger scale.

According to Thomsen, the project partners are also discussing with local departments of the Ministry of Culture about scanning high-profile heritage sites on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, especially Lviv’s Old Town and the Cathedral of Lviv. Hagia Sophia in Kiev.

3D scanning of Ukraine’s cultural heritage is a “fantastic educational tool,” said Yuri Shevchuk, a professor of Ukrainian at Columbia University.

“What is being done now is almost like making Ukrainian history indelible, resistant to time,” said Shevchuk, a native of Ukraine. “You can use it as an education for students, but also for Ukrainians themselves and the world. The project also leads us, as Ukrainians, to rethink and rediscover what has been largely unnoticed.”

Shevchuk says projects like Backup Ukraine have a broader purpose in the fight against Russian aggression and propaganda that do not recognize Ukraine’s unique cultural identity and territorial sovereignty.

“Ukraine, its identity and its fulfillment simply do not exist [to Russia]but that they are a variety of Russian civilization, “Shevchuk said.” Those attributes of Ukrainian identity such as culture, language, literature, music and architecture are truly something that sets Ukrainians apart as original, inimitable and unlike any other nation. ”

They need to be preserved, he says.