Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Role of Digital Media in the Preservation of Historical Sites and Buildings

Guest post by Matt J. 
     -writer for Ranger Roofing of Oklahoma, specialized in home improvement and construction
Edited by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Digital media has taken the world by the storm as countless new platforms pop up every few months. Both conventional media such as television, radio and newspaper and new media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter are ultimately shaping our reality, often without us even realizing it. They construct a so-called pseudo reality which results in shaping how people view something; for example, TV and the Hollywood industry “invented“ a typical American high school experience and regularly portrayed it in a certain way. This resulted in the rest of the world having a distorted picture of American high school students and life. 

This example is a proof that digital media, for sure, has an influence.  It became an instrument of socialization, education and informing, so its impact is undoubtedly verifiable.  However, the question that remains is what type of influence media has and how the media industry is using that power?

To show the power of media and its responsibility, we will use historic buildings as an example. So first, let's analyze the importance of historic sites and its preservation. While technology is advancing and developing, somehow, new buildings and cars tend to break down sooner than old ones. Historic buildings have a high intrinsic value due to their infrastructure. They were mostly built from high-quality materials that are no longer available on the modern market. Let's change the perspective; thousands of historic sites and buildings survived the highest speed winds while newer buildings were severely damaged. Therefore, many old historic buildings have a potential to become a safe spot for offices or companies.

All Saints Anglican Church in Winnipeg was impacted by the 1950 flood
yet stands unfazed today at 175 Colony Street, over 90 years after it first opened.
Source: www.manitobaphotos.com/1950.htm 
Destroying a historic building can also mean annihilating all the hidden gems inside that we don't know about. Old buildings were once in use; therefore, signs of life we don't know anything about are all around. However, they might be hidden somewhere waiting for us to discover. Ruining the property can mean a destruction of valuable historical artifacts that might offer us a new perspective on some period in history.

Maintaining a historical site should be an obligation since historical sites can provide economic value. The heritage tourism sector exists because of historic sites and buildings that have architectural features such as facades, copper roofs, enchanting ornaments, ancient building methods and social history. Therefore, preserving historic sites and buildings have a wider impact than we think.

How is media involved in the preservation of historical sites and buildings?

Let's go back to our question; what type of influence does media has? There are numerous theories giving answers to this question. Some claim that digital media doesn't have an influence as much as everybody thinks. Some argue that media doesn't have an impact at all since people are not passive, and some believe that media has a particular, but not unlimited affect on people.

The last theory, limited influence is the most appropriate one. It explains that digital media might not determine how we think of something, but it certainly does decide what we think about. Therefore, digital media and journalists cannot make us support something, but they inevitably make us think about something. This is something called agenda-setting; the media industry raises awareness over certain topics and makes people revolve around that subject.

Now how is this related to preservation of historic buildings? Well, if media sets what we think about, then it can help in conservation simply by motivating people to consider historic buildings and their immense value. Therefore, if digital media enhances the importance of historical sites, people will be more interested in that topic and will even do their research. Unfortunately, low representation of historical sites in the media is not helping in preservation at all.  There is an abundance of articles and reports on tallest skyscrapers, new skyscrapers but little about ancient building materials or conservation of character defining elements.

The Union Bank Tower at 504 Main Street in Winnipeg is western Canada's first skyscraper,
built in 1903-04 with steel frame technology, it still stands today, reaching up ten stories into the sky.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Special Collection Archives,
www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com/windowPhoto.php?fileNum=%2004-666&tName=commercial
When it comes to historical sites, visual presentation might be crucial. If a TV program would feature more visually attractive video shots of historical buildings and newspapers would produce high-quality captivating photos, then it would catch one's attention. There should also be more materials that promote and advertise organizations or actions that work on protecting, preserving and sustain historic properties. Also funding projects that are related to historical sites or organizing events and conferences about the conservation of our cultural heritage.

New digital platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) became highly intertwined with conventional media. So, their power is proliferating, and they have an enormous influence on what traditional media will broadcast. Facebook is one of the most prominent platform for promoting organizations or event- it reaches a massive audience and motivates TV, radio, and newspaper to mention the event, article or project that is viral at the moment.

The media industry became one of the most influential industries, constructing our reality article by article. However, focusing more on sensationalism and neglecting the protection of built heritage has an adverse impact on our society and preservation. Media moguls and entrepreneurs should ask themselves what really matters? They need to distinguish profit and societal worth.

Heritage Winnipeg recognizes the importance of digital media as a tool to both preserve and promote heritage. In addition to a making use of a website (heritagewinnipeg.com) and social media (twitter.com/HeritageWPG, www.facebook.com/HeritageWinnipeg, www.instagram.com/heritagewpg), Heritage Winnipeg has a blog. Started in 2014, the blog is an effective means of bringing timely attention to heritage issues in a timely manner. It gives heritage a context, stressing the importance of conserving the cultural history of Winnipeg.

Heritage Winnipeg's Blog was started in 2004 to
provide timely information on heritage issues in Winnipeg.

Heritage Winnipeg has also worked on several digital heritage projects. The first endeavor, the Virtual Heritage Winnipeg site in 2004, (www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com) is a repository of over 3000 digital photographs that document the history of Winnipeg from its inception at the end of the fur trading era. Visitors can use the virtual tour feature to wander through buildings in the Exchange District, a national historic site, learning about the historic buildings and experiencing a 360 degree view of some of the interiors that have remained largely unchanged for over a century. The gallery feature allows visitors to search through thousands of photos, finding countless fascinating images of Winnipeg’s past. There are also 170 vignettes that illuminate Winnipeg’s built heritage through photographs and stories.

The Virtual Heritage Winnipeg website uses digital media to
preserve and promote Winnipeg's built heritage.
Source: www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com 
Building on the success of the Virtual Heritage Winnipeg site, Heritage Winnipeg is now working to exhibit Winnipeg’s outstanding heritage on a national scale. Recently, Heritage Winnipeg’s application to the Virtual Museum of Canada was approved, making way for the creation of a virtual exhibit to be promoted on a national scale. Educators, students, professionals, community leaders and enthusiasts alike will be able to use the tools in the exhibit to identify architectural traditions and styles and understand the role they played in shaping the country. It will also include an interactive feature, allowing visitors to upload images of their favourite architecture. Once complete, the digital exhibit will be accessible through the Virtual Museum of Canada's website (virtualmuseum.ca) and Heritage Winnipeg's website (heritagewinnipeg.com).

Built heritage and digital media have a lot in common, both constantly morphing as they race into the future, striving to meet the demands of today's society. Digital media allows for built heritage to remain at the forefront of peoples’ minds, shinning a spotlight on structures that are all to often forgotten until it is too late. It peaks peoples’ interest and reminds them that heritage is all around us, and full of stories that shaped the world we live in today. Additionally, digital media is constantly finding new and inventive ways to preserve a record of the past, ensuring generations to come will be able to enjoy the built heritage that serves as the foundation for our modern and progressive cities.

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