Digitally preserving Vietnamese relics

Koreans help restore site in Vietnam

HUE, Vietnam ― The summer sun heated the air up to 45 degrees Celsius (113F) recently as a group of young Koreans busily took pictures of a large, deteriorating building. The heat also continued to take its slow toll on the structure, which sported peeling paint and rotting wood beneath its yellow-tiled roof.
The Throne Palace is one of the few buildings standing today within Hue, the Imperial City, which served as capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and as home to the emperor and royal family. Eighty percent of the Imperial City grounds have been destroyed by foreign attacks in various wars. Today, only a few buildings remain, still bearing the scars of conflict.
The city of Hue has been designated as a World Cultural Heritage site, but a lack of monetary and human resources are delaying the professional preservation of the existing structures, let alone the restoration of the demolished ones.
Park Jin-ho, a researcher at the Graduate School of Culture and Technology of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and his teammates have been working to digitally preserve the site. The 11 team members include a mix of scientists, technicians and a photographer.
They are also cultural envoys, as this is the first project that the Korean government has undertaken to help preserve cultural relics in foreign countries.
The project is mainly being funded by the Cultural Heritage Foundation, which provided 100 million won ($106,000). Kaist provided 20 million won, but the money does not include the expensive equipment the team is using, such as digital 3D scanners. The project is also supported by the Korean National Commission for Unesco.
The team is basically taking both two- and three-dimensional images of the site and reconstructing the building in a three-dimensional format.
“We’re rebuilding the building in a virtual space,” said Ahn Jae-hong, one of the Kaist researchers working on the project.
There is plenty of work to do.
In 1968 American forces bombed the area when North Vietnamese troops had taken over the citadel; the monuments were also destroyed by the French in 1947 and various battles in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Vietnamese rose up against France, then its colonial ruler. The structures that survived were weathered by typhoons, floods and other natural disasters.
“This is a new kind of diplomatic approach ― a cultural one, which makes it very high on the strategic ladder of international exchanges,” said Kim Kui-bae, an official at the Korean National Commission for Unesco. This local body for Unesco suggested the Vietnamese site to the government.
“It is very meaningful because Vietnam and Korea have a strong his-toric relationship,” Kim said. “Also, we don’t think of this project as a charity to help developing countries. It is part of the greater global initiative to restore cultural relics, which are an important asset for everyone.”
Ahn, of the Kaist team, agreed.
“In the past, the foreign support offered by Korea was mainly medical work or building social infrastructure, such as roads. But since Korea is strong in information technology, we are now trying to reach out with the technological edge we have,” Ahn said.
The Vietnam-run Hue Monuments Conservation Center has offered its support, allowing the Korean team to work around-the-clock on the site, giving them full access to restricted areas. The center is also providing the team with past documents and maps to help with the digital reconstruction.
This project is not part of a $70 million, 15-year project the Vietnamese government launched in 1996 to restore some of the main structures, but since restoration efforts have only just begun, the digital documentation of the site and cyber rendering of the demolished buildings will assist future restoration efforts, an HMCC spokeswoman said.
The Korean team plans to visit the site two more times this year and they hope to finish the project by December.
When the digital rendering is complete, the Koreans will set up an installation at the actual site, with huge monitors.
Visitors will then be able to see what the building looked like in 2007 and what it looked like in its prime.
The Kaist team is now working on recomposing the digital images.
“People will be able to see what the site looked like through projectors and screens, which will give them an idea of the splendor of the past,” said Ahn Mi-hye, a researcher at Kaist’s digital media contents lab and the only woman on the team. “The field work was extremely exhausting because of the heat, but it is fulfilling to be working on a project that has a special purpose.”

By Wohn Dong-hee
Staff Writer for JoongAng Daily

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