Digital heritage spans across two distinct environments by definition. Digital and heritage values are merged into experiences of people while authoring both. The challenge is the authenticity issue in these two seemingly disparate projections of intelligence. Interpretations while transcribing heritage information into digital formats need to meet a degree of authenticity in order to communicate that information. But the definition of authenticity is rather ‘relative’ as every young generation sees authenticity within standards associated with their own time and cultural lens .
‘Iz’ (Trace), which is a masterpiece novel in Uygur literature, is a compelling example to see how an authentic preservation of an artefact can be different in its implementation within the circumstances faced in Kashgar that has always been a sensitive area of Chinese politics.
This novel begins with a personal story of the author, Ötkür , who frames the literary work as a problem statement. The author describes witnessing a conversation between an old and a young man. The two talk about building a dome to protect the grave of an important cultural figure known as ‘Timur Halpa’, who was the leader of a Uygur uprising in the beginning of 20th century, from environmental impacts. However, in this work they both die before making this happen and all traces of the grave disappears. Ötkür (the author) inherits the plan for constructing a dome in remembrance of Timur Halpa. Traditionally, the material used to build domes, houses, and even graves is mud and mud-brick.
Interesting, instead of bricks, mud, stones or steel, Ötkür explains that the monument should be a dome made of ‘white paper and black ink’ so that Timur Halpa’s memory can live forever without being disturbed by winds and rain. Ötkür then articulates a great fictional story born from an authentic way of preservation that still accounts for a masterpiece in Uygur Literature. “The fictional is authentic; the authentic is fictional” says an article of BBC about the The Museum of Innocence – Europe’s Museum of the Year in 2014 . Celebrating and borrowing from this approach, this research is not less interested in the remaining issue of authenticity around the authorship of the fiction, which is faced in the practices of cultural heritage ‘making’.
In the context of this research, Kashgar presents a similar contradictory problem (the fictional is authentic; the authentic is fictional) where a preservation strategy that would prioritise the materiality of heritage is in a way invalid since a great number of old houses have been replaced with new ones that look like old.
The new appearance of the historical town only operates as a reminder of Kashgar style. Just as it looks fictional in appearance, a unique heritage is commodified through an authorship of the entire process which poorly reflects what the locals themselves could identify with. The below photograph of the new Kashgar silhouette successfully explains the result of such treatment where a newly-built Chinese Pagoda overrides the heritage value. Yet, only a decade ago, Kashgar was alleged to be “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia“ .
Broadening these circumstances found in Kashgar, the problem that this research tackles becomes more universal, adding value to the study. What is rather confronted here is unduly loose tests of authenticity in cultural heritage which entails a challenge of transformation between seemingly discrepant languages, i.e. digital value and heritage value. Prolonged exposure of authenticity in cultural heritage studies has recently lead to critical reflections on the inviolable territories of the sector in practice, e.g. Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAMs) sector. Forms of problem identification is varied depending on claims such as “Non-representational Heritage”, “More-than-representational Heritage”, “UNESCOsized Heritage” and “Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD)”.
Following the concept of ‘authenticators as authors of shared knowledge’ in contrast to ‘authenticators as guardians of knowledge’ , the contextualisation of the problem that this design research work can be marked lies under the paramount aim of “Unmediated Cultural Heritage”, i.e. a confrontation of the institutionalised nature of cultural heritage making in contemporary practices.
This research proposes that user-oriented approaches are missing in digital heritage practice. The focus of digital heritage studies is mostly on either ‘process’ or ‘product’ but rarely ‘users’ . As a human product, authenticity issue in heritage is most consistently associated with the integration of the work which is more often than not cross-disciplinary, to user experience. The designer’s empathy to create knowledge through practice can deal with the complexity of intersecting domains as well as the ambiguity of user-engagement.
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