Digital Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis

Originally, this (late) blog post was going to focus on my struggles with Bootstrap Studio as I continue work on my CHI project. But, over the weekend, as I was attempting to work on my map, I visited the Leaflet website to read up on some additional customization. Instead, I found this message:

Screenshot of the Leaflet homepage with a message regarding the founder's Ukrainian heritage and ways to support Ukraine

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. There have been many responses–some political, some scholarly, and some even memeified–but here I want to focus on heritage and digital humanities. In addition to the horrifying war crimes Russia has committed against Ukrainian citizens, there have also been direct attacks on Ukrainian heritage. On February 28, Ethan shared The Kyiv Independent’s breaking news update that Russian soldiers had burned a history museum, along with an article from Blue Shield International:

This article discusses the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols related to the destruction of cultural heritage in international conflicts. It breaks down the ways destruction of cultural heritage is an international crime, and highlights the gray areas in the language. At the beginning of the fellowship, we discussed Article 53 of the Geneva Convention in the context of the destruction of heritage during the Malian Civil War. However, I never anticipated that we would potentially see the necessity of Article 53 play out in real time during the course of this fellowship. While what is happening in Ukraine can be discussed on many social/cultural/political fronts, I want to focus on the way preservation of heritage has become one of the many unfolding discussions. In the days following the Russian invasion, several different projects and initiatives have cropped up in an attempt to digitally preserve buildings, artifacts, and other heritage objects that are at risk. 

Before we even get to the element of digital cultural heritage, I’d like to note how big of a role the digital has played more generally. With social media available to many, information and disinformation has been able to spread like wildfire in a way that has been somewhat unprecedented. The role of Russia in digital misinformation campaigns has been prevalent for almost a decade now–particularly demonstrated through the American election cycles and Brexit. In addition to the physical conflict taking place in Ukraine, there were fears that Russian hackers may take down the digital infrastructure. In fact, on February 26 the Vice Prime Minister and Minster of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted requests for volunteers to join the IT Army of Ukraine:

Many people have jumped at the chance to help Ukraine, both on the level of international governments uniting to bring swift sanctions against Russia and regular citizens across the globe who desire to help those affected by this conflict. However, as some have noted, a desire to help is not always enough. Some people in the West have demonstrated a severe disconnect from what’s happening via misguided memes, art, and think pieces. Contributing digitally has been one fairly easy way for people to engage with a tragedy on the other side of the world, and that has brought its own problems. On February 28, Alix Dunn posted a detailed thread on how having some technical skills and wanting to be involved is not enough:

This thread highlights a variety of issues about jumping into digital projects during a crisis without being prepared ranging from sustainability, to providing sensitive data to the wrong parties, and the issue of trying to build something without a deeper understanding of the situation. Data scientist Dr. Andrew Therriault wrote a similar thread, arguing that the potentially best way to help if you have tech skills is to make more money to donate rather than intervening with some sort of digital initiative that merely leads to more technical debt:

Some experts are also facing lash back for their advice on digitally preserving heritages. For instance, Dr. Sarah Parcak received some fierce Twitter criticism after posting about methods for the 3D preservation of buildings. Dr. Parcak pointed out that she was responding directly to the Ukrainian Minister of Culture’s pleas for assistance, but the responses to her tweet highlight some very important points. In what ways can we save heritage that is under imminent threat? How do we ethically engage with attempts to save heritage when human lives are at stake? Is there ever a truly appropriate time or place for suggestions of documenting heritage as war is waged?

This is not the first time–nor will it be the last–these kinds of questions arise.  Of course, these are just the examples that have come across my Twitter feed or been brought to my attention through discussions with my colleagues. The news and discussions will keep coming and the situation will continue to evolve. This blog is in no way a comprehensive look at the discourse around the role of the digital or the risk to cultural heritage in Ukraine. I am not an expert on Ukraine or Russia; nor am I an expert in digital cultural heritage (although I am studying it). 

Early today, news trickled out that Ivankiv Historical-Cultural Museum was destroyed. Until the Russian invasion is ended, Ukraine’s people and heritage are at risk, and people will be working to document both this world-changing time and records of the past.

Fortunately, there is work out there that addresses some of these questions and concerns. The Nimble Tents Toolkit–including its discussion of Rapid Response Research (RRR)–has been re-circulating in DH circles since the start of the invasion. According to the homepage, the Toolkit was produced in response to Hurricane Maria and a closely following earthquake to provide emergency responders with better maps. The section on RRR is intended to help scholars determine whether or not the project is wanted or needed as a response to the crisis and the ways in which this work can be done ethically. In a final note on hidden costs of conducting this kind of research, the Toolkit contributors note:

As our experiences show, wading into the waters of public information in moments of crises is a decision that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. First and foremost, it must be done with the safety of affected communities in mind. Researchers must also be aware that this work can be taxing on the spirit. Exposure to high levels of cruelty and injustice, for example, are probably best handled by those who feel prepared to fix their eyes on intimate horrors and still fight on with clarity of mind and a stout will. We urge you to take care of yourself, regardless of the situation, at the same time as you care for others—through the work. (Note adapted from “Textures” in Torn Apart/Separados).

Only time will tell the extent of RRR done in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the quality of the projects that arise out of it. In the interim, there are some digital cultural heritage projects that I’ve seen that I think are worth keeping an eye on:

If you’ve seen any other projects, please do share in the comments. 

It feels deeply absurd to bypass the powerful message on the Leaflet homepage to continue working on my map about Stratford-upon-Avon guidebooks while people are frantically trying to digitally preserve the cultural heritage of Ukraine. My next blog post will most likely be about my Bootstrap woes. I will not forget to stand with Ukraine. I will do my best to contribute ethically and responsibly. I will interrogate the various sources of information and the multitude of research projects that come across my screen, and I will continue to do so for the all crises as they arise in the coming days, months, and years.

This post was originally published at

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