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Icons of Progress

The Preservation of Culture Through Technology

IBM100 The Preservation of Culture Through Technology iconic mark

Built in 1764, the Hermitage Museum in Russia assembled one of the world’s most important collections of art—more than 3,000,000 pieces. It was the brainchild of Tsarina Catherine the Great. More than 230 years later, IBM collaborated with the Hermitage to make it one of the most technologically advanced museums in the world. IBMers built a website in 1997, later called the “World’s Best Online Museum” by National Geographic Traveler. IBMers collaborating in Russia, Italy and the United States, among other countries, worked with art historians at the museum to create the online site. It was an early example in the art world of bringing image technologies and the Internet together.

IBMers have been using cultural projects to stretch the boundaries of technologies for generations. In the process, they have made it possible for scholars, museums, libraries and governments to make their work accessible—and newly understandable—to people all over the world. As early as the 1950s, use of databases, and software search and analytical tools was embraced by scholars in the arts, literature and other humanities. National museums and libraries, in particular, were quick to explore the potential of computing as the ability to display images in color improved, beginning in the 1980s. Today, digital imaging is a standard feature of most displays in large museums and libraries. Most recently, IBM has been using virtual world capabilities and social media to capture historical worlds and share cultural experiences.

In 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd found the Dead Sea Scrolls, consisting of 40,000 fragments of 400 documents recording the thinking of a long-lost Jewish monastic community in Biblical times, analyzing their content was almost beyond human ability. All these fragments had to be indexed, using a digitized vocabulary of more than 30,000 words in Hebrew, Aramaic and Nabatean. IBMers had to modify existing programs to read these languages. Data punched into cards in Italy were moved to magnetic tape in New York using an IBM ® 705 Data Processing System in the 1950s. Paul Tasman of IBM spent three months creating software to track the frequency, use and sequence of words in the text. Other analyses followed in subsequent decades.

In the 1960s, IBMers assisted in the restoration of Candi Borobudur in Indonesia, the largest Buddhist temple and 8th wonder of the world, a site that was 1200 years old. It was at risk of breaking apart due to a sinking foundation and cracking walls. To help in the seven-year project, IBMers developed systems to track more than 300,000 stones, statues and sculpture work as the temple was dismantled and then put back together.

In the 1990s, the challenge with the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, was how to preserve and make accessible to scholars the records of the Spanish colonization of the New World from the 1490s to the 1820s. Historians needed clear images and an accurate, comprehensive catalog. IBM Spain, the Ministry of Culture, the Foundation Ramón Areces—all in Madrid—and the Archivo collaborated on the digitizing project. Today, scholars can work with many of these fragile Spanish documents from the convenience of their home offices, using one of the first digital libraries ever built in the world.

In 1994, IBMers used digital imaging, distributed processing and new database software to help the 500-year-old Vatican Library—which houses some of Western civilization’s most ancient and precious documents—use technology to dramatically extend its library services to a scholarly community around the globe. This collaboration was an unprecedented effort to make a historically and culturally significant collection of precious illustrated mediaeval manuscripts accessible via the Internet. It also helped define the technical, financial and practical challenges for projects of similar ambition and scale. In 1998, state-of-the-art modeling and graphics software were used to develop a 3D rendering of Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietá. It had been smashed apart by Michelangelo, and then reconstructed by one of his assistants. The digital imaging capabilities allowed experts to see the work as it was before it was destroyed.

For half a century, IBM has been applying technology to help preserve and present the history of Egypt to tourists, students and scholars. It started with complex indexing in the 1950s, culminating with interactive multimedia in the mid-1990s. The Eternal Egypt project, with the goal of bringing to light more than 5000 years of Egyptian civilization, was the fruit of a unique collaboration between IBM, the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT)—which is affiliated with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Technology is a critical enabling tool for documentation, a key component of cultural heritage preservation, and will continue to be used to ensure a holistic approach to the experience of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

From deciphering ancient texts to preserving epic architecture, from creating digitized libraries of the world’s most historic records to building interactive cultural websites, for decades IBMers have played essential roles in not only preserving history, but in making it accessible, animated and alive.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Henry Chow Corporate business advisor to IBM
  • Frank Giordano Led design engineering of the digital imaging system used in many museum and library projects
  • Frederick C. Mintzer Led development of key visualization, 3D graphics and digital imaging technologies (1980s - 2005)
  • Paul Tasman Dead Sea Scrolls project leader (1958)
  • Gabriel Taubin Pietá project leader (1998)
  • John Tolva Former director of citizenship and technology