Pakistan’s cultural heritage finds its way online.
Tech giant Google’s Cultural Institute, an online platform that digitizes archives, works of art, and historical architecture across the world, is hoping to bring Pakistan’s heritage to a global audience through virtual tours and high-resolution images—while boosting tourism at home.
“Pakistan is brimming with a rich historical and cultural heritage, with stories and artifacts that we are keen to preserve for future generations,” says Ann Lavin, director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google Asia-Pacific. Six Pakistani institutions have signed up for the initiative thus far, providing audiences online with pictures of 467 artifacts from 13 different exhibits, including the rare Fasting Siddhartha sculpture currently displayed at the Lahore Museum’s Gandhara Gallery.
The Google Cultural Institute currently features over 60 countries’ cultural artifacts, including some that allow viewers to zoom in at the brushstroke level. The initiative hopes that by increasing the variety of cultural material available online, it will democratize access to it.
“There isn’t a single museum in the world that can accommodate the millions who browsed the collection on the GCI website,” says Lavin. James Davis, program manager for Institute, agrees but cautions against seeing the online archives as a replacement for brick-and-mortar museums. “We consider the digital representation of the museum a complement to physically visiting the museum,” he tells Newsweek. “It’s an advertisement to go and see these places.”
Fakir Khana Museum curators Fakir Saif-ud-din Bokhari and his nephew Farhan Shah echo Davis. While enthusiastic about the digitizing of their collection, they do not believe it substitutes for a visit. “Nothing is the same as a visit to the place. The experience of holding the artifact in your hands is something you can’t get online,” Shah tells Newsweek, adding that Google was only granted access to part of the collection and there are several other pieces to be seen for people who visit in person.
According to Davis, the Palace of Versailles in France saw a 20 percent increase in visitors after its images were uploaded to the online platform. Google retains the same hopes for Pakistan’s fledgling tourism industry, which has struggled since the U.S. invaded neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, leading to an upsurge in militant violence. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Pakistan’s GDP last year was only 2.9 percent.
In Pakistan, the Institute took nearly two years to archive exhibitions from the Lahore Museum, the Mohatta Palace Museum, the Walled City of Lahore Authority, the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, the Fakir Khana Museum and the AAN Collection of Pakistani art. It has also created virtual tours of ancient historical sites using Google Street View images—all without costing Islamabad a single penny.
“There is absolutely no financial transaction between the museums, governments and us,” says Davis, noting that the Institute is a non-profit organization. While not at liberty to disclose a budget for the Institute’s work in Pakistan, Google representatives said it was “significant.”
But while the Institute’s archives are seen as a boon for Pakistan’s image abroad, there are concerns over its success within the country. There are an estimated 31 million Internet users in Pakistan—less than 11 percent of the population—although these figures are expected to rise with the arrival of high-speed 3G services. A bigger problem is the lack of support for Urdu, which remains the primary mode of communication for most Pakistanis.
Google, however, is optimistic. “The trend we’ve noticed in Pakistan is that mobile access is skyrocketing, even if access still has a long way to go,” says Alexander Long, country lead for Google’s Public Policy and Government Affairs. “Pakistan is exciting, because the West does not know as much about this country as they do about others,” Davis adds. He hopes the digital “taste” of Pakistan’s cultural richness will goad people into visiting the country themselves. “You could begin your journey online and you may just end up on the steps of your destination,” he says.