Preserving Asia’s Cultural Heritage in the Digital Age

Preserving Asia’s Cultural Heritage in the Digital Age

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 15 February, 2023


The question remains, how do we integrate cultural heritage buildings and structures, often built in another era and for different functions, into the texture of the ever evolving Southeast Asian cities?

David Ocón

Assistant Professor of Arts and Cultural Management (Practice)

In brief

  • While cultural heritage is an integral part of a city's identity and history, preserving it remains a challenge. Policy and decision-makers often have to choose between protecting urban heritage assets and catering to the needs of their fast-evolving environments.
  • Digitalisation is a prospective alternative to traditional preservation. Virtual reality, augmented reality, photogrammetry and 3D modelling and printing, and 360-degree capturing technologies are some of the digital tools that allow current and future generations to interact with heritage assets in meaningful ways. 
  • In Southeast Asia, where funding is limited, public-private partnerships (PPPs) are instrumental in keeping each country’s heritage alive. By giving historical buildings and structures new roles in a relevant way, cultural heritage preservation can be done effectively and sustainably.


Between 2012- 2017, the iconic Rizal Monument in the city of Manila sparked discussions about the importance of preserving and respecting one’s heritage. The building of a high-rise condominium directly behind the monument caused an outrage among many citizens who saw it not only as an eyesore, but an act of disgrace towards a beloved national figure. After a long period of legal proceedings, the court ruled in favour of the condominium developers, to the dismay of Filipino cultural activists. 

While cultural heritage is an integral part of a city's identity and history, preserving it remains a difficult challenge with few straightforward solutions. David Ocón, Assistant Professor of Arts and Cultural Management explains that this is a conundrum many Southeast Asian cities face today. Given their large population size and shortage of space, aligning the cities’ need for new roads, residential developments and other basic infrastructure with its cultural preservation needs is no easy feat.

Digital cultural preservation

Asst Prof Ocón emphasises that, where possible, the preservation of tangible cultural heritage is always preferred as no digital tool or virtual experience can completely replace an in-person visit to a cultural heritage site. However, he argues that digitalisation offers an alternative to the challenges experienced today by some Asian cities. He shares thatto some extent, the new wave of contemporary digitalisation, with tools such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) photogrammetry and 3D modelling and printing, and 360-degree capturing technologies, represent the ‘next level’ of a trend that started long ago.” According to him, there are two benefits that recent digital tools are able to offer now that were not possible before.

The first is interactivity. These new technologies help us understand the heritage assets better than ever and allow us to visit them in holistic and integrative ways. For example, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can make one feel as if they are at the heritage site itself, even if it is thousands of kilometres away, or no longer in existence. This is valuable not only for tangible assets but also for intangible heritage assets like traditions, stories and narratives. 

These tools also offer new possibilities in education. Digitalisation enables remote access to previously restricted heritage assets, allowing a wider audience to experience and learn about them. By incorporating interactive elements or presenting the heritage in the form of an educational game for example, these assets become more relevant to the digital-savvy generation. While the restricted mobility caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a push in this direction, Asst Prof Ocón hopes to see more of such digital initiatives emerge as an alternative to traditional preservation.

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4 examples of digitalised cultural heritage preservation efforts in Asia

1. 3D digital reconstruction of Shurijo Castle (Japan)
Digital tools used: 360-Degree technology, 3D Modelling and Photogrammetry

  • A large fire destroyed Shurijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan’s Okinawa Islands. Researchers, students, and engineers joined forces to virtually reconstruct this essential element of Okinawa’s cultural heritage. They created the ‘Our Shurijo’ project, a 3D digital reconstruction of Shurijo Castle’s shapes and textures using 3D modelling technology and photogrammetry.
  • The Okinawa Prefectural government collaborated with Google’s Arts & Culture platform to highlight the castle’s heritage through the digital project Reconstructing Shurijo Castle. The project compiles materials that include 360-degree visits, and recordings made by drones flying through and above the castle park.

2. Curated virtual exhibition on shared Buddhist heritage (India)
Digital tools used: 3D Photogrammetry 

  • India’s National Museum launched the SCO Virtual Exhibition on Shared Buddhist Heritage that displays 400 digital copies of rare Buddhist artworks and fundamental events of the Buddha. 
  • Participating museums and institutions provided 3D photographed objects and artefacts, and India’s National Museum team of curators integrated them into a collective digital exhibition that replicates a physical presentation.
  • While this is a good step towards preserving these Buddhist artefacts, the SCO virtual exhibition also has flaws:
    • the loading times are long
    • some of the virtual spaces created are rudimentary, and 
    • there are notable discrepancies when visiting the different countries’ resources.
  • Visit the virtual exhibition here.

3) Travelling the Ho Chi Minh Trail by ear (Vietnam) 
Digital tool used: Podcasts 

  • An alternative method of digitally engaging with cultural heritage sites is listening to travel podcasts that offer virtual tourists immersive auditory travelling experiences.
  • Auditory travel is also used in investigating a specific socio-cultural issue characteristic of the country. This offers a more sustained form of tourism, where tourists embrace the complexities of a country beyond pretty photographs.
  • In leveraging on the role of digital nomads in activating digital tourism, podcasts that retell their reflections regarding their interactions with local society also make up auditory travel.
  • Click here to listen to travel podcast Armchair Explorer’s episode titled ‘The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle’with Travel Author Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent.

4. A City in Time: An augmented experience in real time (Hong Kong)
Digital tool used: Augmented Reality (AR)

  • Augmented Reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the real-world objects are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which creates its own cyber environment, AR adds to the real world and allows the user to interact with it.
  • In Hong Kong, a new tourism project ‘City in Time’ featuring AR enables smartphone users to enjoy panoramic views of how Hong Kong used to be in the past. The public can download the project’s mobile phone app and scan markers installed at designated locations around town to view the historical sights.
  • Get a glimpse of the AR experience (web version) here.

Cultural Heritage preservation – Whose responsibility is it?

Many assume that the duty of cultural preservation lies in the hands of wealthier and/or committed countries like Japan, or international bodies like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which has the dedicated resources and expertise to safeguard the world's cultural heritage. Asst Prof Ocón shares, while they have played an essential role in providing funding, strategic actions and training cultural heritage practitioners over the decades, relying on them exclusively for cultural heritage preservation poses some limitations. Within Southeast Asia, ASEAN has made modest attempts to conserve artefacts through various means, such as the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive (ACHDA) initiative that was launched in 2020. Unfortunately, its efforts have yielded few results, and the project remains at a standstill at the present. 

Governments and other stakeholders within each country therefore need to shoulder greater responsibility in keeping their cultural heritage alive. Asst Prof Ocón says that “In Southeast Asia where funding is limited, partnerships are a must. Civil society groups, universities and educational institutions, companies, and governmental bodies need to collaborate to ensure the preservation of cultural heritage assets”. He cites the example of the Nizamuddin Basti project in New Delhi where, through the use of an innovative People-Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model conserved over 20 historic monuments while reviving local crafts, improving the urban environment and creating new jobs at the same time.

With digital tools like 360-degree and UAV filming and photography, photogrammetry and 3D modelling becoming more accessible and affordable than ever, Asst Prof Ocón believes that the floor has been opened to new actors to chip in meaningfully in preserving cultural heritage. He himself has spearheaded the Digital Cultural Heritage Asia platform to provide a wider audience with access to digital copies of “cultural heritage blind spots” that are at risk of disappearance. Its first project, ‘Kubor Kassim’ in Siglap, was created entirely using low budget resources, demonstrating that with the right digital tools, anyone can play a part in cultural heritage preservation today.

Prioritising sustainability 

While heritage preservation is itself an important cause, Asst Prof Ocón warns that some discretion is needed. He says, “preservation for the sake of preservation might not be the best option to deal with an asset or a space. For instance, when thinking about costly and time-consuming projects that insist on preserving something that has little relevance for the society today and, after rehabilitation will be ill-fitted to perform any relevant role in it efficiently and sustainably”. He cites the example of St Joseph’s institution at Bras Basah Road in Singapore, which was transformed to become the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in the late 1990s, but struggled to fit a structure designed to be a school and has been closed since 2019, engulfed in a massive second redevelopment.

In his own research, he is looking at the role of cemeteries in space-constrained cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, which tend to sacrifice the society’s history, memories and identity in exchange for growth and development. He says “I am now exploring possibilities of integrating the remaining cemeteries, including its often lush and unique surrounding nature, into the fabric of the city, allowing them to evolve and play new roles in the city. For instance, as gardens, parks, or community spaces that allow them to survive while playing new roles in the evolving city. These synergies between nature and culture can unlock new sustainable cultural heritage preservation models for Asian cities.

Methodology & References