From bringing ancient ruins to life through augmented reality (AR) to 3D-printing centuries-old artefacts, cultural heritage startups are transforming the landscape of heritage preservation and education. By leveraging technology to foster a deeper connection with our past, this breed of companies help safeguard some of the most defining elements of human history.
TNW spoke with three innovative startups in the space to find out how they’re using tech to bridge the gap between past and present.
Over 2,000 years ago, the city of Baia near Naples was the go-to holiday destination for the elite of the Roman Empire. Known for its luxurious and hedonistic vibe, it attracted prominent figures such as Cicero and even Julius Caesar himself.
Today, about half of the ancient town lies beneath the surface of the Mediterranean.
Baia is one of the world’s very few underwater sites open to the public, accessible through snorkelling, scuba diving, and glass-bottomed boat tours. But preserving submerged ruins is no easy task.
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Diving in Baia. Credit: Campi Flegrei Sub Center
To help protect Baia, in 2019, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage partnered with Wsense, a spinoff from the Sapienza University of Rome, which specialises in underwater monitoring and communication systems.
“Since GPS, radiocommunication, and satellite signals don’t work underwater, you need to build your own infrastructure for the underwater domain,” Chiara Petrioli, founder and CEO of Wsense and Professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, tells TNW.
Wsense has created a subsea Wi-Fi so that real-time data below the water’s surface can be collected and transmitted back to land. To serve that purpose, the deep tech startup has developed a network of wireless IoUT (Internet of Underwater Things) devices.
Specifically, Wsense’s system relies on multi-sensor nodes, which provide information on various aspects of water quality, from temperature and pressure to pH, salinity currents, and tides.
Data can be transmitted in two ways. Firstly, from one node to the other, a process that is optimised by an AI algorithm that changes the transfer path when sea conditions change. Secondly, it can be transferred to the surface through Wsense’s gateways, which, either integrated into floating buoys or posted on nearby land, connect the underwater network to the cloud — and from there, to the rest of the world.
In the case of Baia, this system allows for remote in-situ monitoring, which doesn’t simply set off alarms in case of unauthorised access, but most importantly provides water information critical for the site’s preservation.
This includes tracking the environmental conditions that could distort the artefacts. It further entails observing CO2 emission levels to understand how the area’s volcanic activity is developing, while enabling the study of climate change’s impact on underwater cultural heritage.
Here’s a video with how Wsense’s system in Baia works:
In addition, the technology has provided a valuable tool for archaeologists diving in the submerged city. Thanks to special micronodes attached to a waterproof tablet, divers can communicate both with each other and with their colleagues above the surface. “Think of it as an underwater WhatsApp,” Dr Petrioli says. At the same time, these micronodes create a type of underwater GPS that helps locate divers in real time.
“We have also been collaborating with a partner to develop an AR app on our tablet, which visitors can use to view 3D reconstructions of Baia while at the site,” she adds.
Footage of diver using Wsense’s tablet in submerged Baia. CreditL: Wsense
Besides the preservation of cultural heritage, the startup’s technology has multiple areas of application, including environmental and critical infrastructure monitoring and aquaculture. Last January, the World Economic Forum named it “the world’s most innovative company in collecting and managing big data for the purpose of protecting the ocean environment.”
Founded in 2017, Wsense has grown into a team of 50 people, with offices in Italy, Norway, and the UK. In October, the award-winning spinoff completed a €9mn Series A round, raising its total funding to €13mn.
It doesn’t take a knight in shining armour to save a castle in distress — and that’s exactly what Dartagnans has been proving. Named after Dumas’ famous musketeer, the Paris-based startup is fighting to save and promote castles that would have otherwise fallen into oblivion.
“We wanted to save a castle from A to Z.
Founded in 2015, the startup began as a crowdfunding platform connecting donors to owners/managers of historical monuments. By gradually building a community, Dartagnans became France’s leader in crowdfunding for heritage preservation, just after the first two years of operation.
“After a point, we wanted to have our castle and save it from A to Z,” Romain Delaume, Dartagnans’ co-founder and CEO, tells TNW. “We didn’t have enough capital to buy one but we had a growing community.”
So in 2018, the startup reinvented its business model and introduced the collective purchase of castles concept, offering the opportunity for anyone in the world to invest in endangered castles and become co-owners.
“When we launched the first collective purchase campaign, we raised over €1.6mn in 45 days,” Delaume says. “This means that when you give the opportunity to people, they all gather for a cause regardless of their background.”
In the past five years, Dartagnans has helped save four castles in France: the Château de la Monthe Chandeniers in Vienne, the the Château de l’Ebaupinay in Deux-Sèvres, the Château de Vibrac in Charente, and the Château de Boulogne in Oise.
The Château de Boulogne. The 19th-century castle features a distinct architecture, inspired from history and esotericism. It was commissioned by Count Charles de Boulogne, a rich Belgian landowner. The castle suffered terribly during WWI and, now, nearly 7,500 people have become co-castellans to save it. Credit: Dartagnans
Following the purchase, the castles go through gradual restoration and are opened to the public for touristic activities, such as visits, events, volunteer projects, and hospitality programmes. The self-funded startup now counts over 50,000 co-castellans and an international community of 300,000 heritage defenders. Since its founding, it has raised €15mn for the safeguarding of monuments.
Co-castellans can invest in castles on the startup’s platform and, in return, they receive ownership shares, which they can keep, sell, or pass on to their children or friends. “It’s a share of a company,” Delaume explains. “We create a company for each castle we operate and then we sell the shares to the public.” Each share costs €79.
According to Delaume, Dartagnans owns one-third of the castles, which allows it to pilot the company and carry out restoration, management, marketing, and tourist activities. “I am like a CEO with thousands and thousands of little shareholders,” he says.
The Château de l’Ebaupinay. Classified as an historical monument since 1898, the medieval castle is a rare remnant of the mid-15th century architecture. Credit: Dartagnans
Nevertheless, co-castellans have their own say in big management decisions, with each share representing one vote. The community is also involved through activities, meetings, and assemblies, both in person and online. The company’s biggest event is The Night of the Castles (link), when hundreds of castles across France and Europe simultaneously open their doors at nighttime.
Dartagnans currently employs 14 people and operates solely in France, with future plans for international expansion. Within the next decade, Delaume hopes that they’ll have accomplished half of the restoration needed for the castles. Another goal is to keep growing what he calls “a happy community.”
Standing in front of historical ruins or a vase dating back to 500 BCE can cause a feeling of detachment. Even for those with a vivid imagination, reconstructing the past from a centuries-old object is no easy task — but thankfully, technology can help.
Hi.Stories was founded in Sicily in 2017 with the mission to integrate digital technologies into cultural heritage to help facilitate its communication, and in turn, its protection.
The startup offers multiple services. It develops 3D models and prints of museum artefacts; it designs apps for archaeological sites and museums, using storytelling narratives and gamification; and it creates virtual tours based on augmented reality (AR).
The startup developed the Sicily Histories app to help visitors explore the region’s sites using AR and 3D reconstructions. Through storytelling and a gamified narrative, users can help characters explore Sicily. Credit: Hi.Stories
One notable advantage of these tools is that they increase visitors’ interactive experience, and in turn, their engagement with heritage.
“Communication through the realisation of digital use systems allows heritage to be read at different levels: the visitor — on-site or remotely — becomes the protagonist of his or her own visit, being able to choose different degrees of immersion,” Luna Meli, co-founder of the startup, tells TNW.
Another advantage is the improved accessibility of exhibits, which goes well beyond the obvious benefit of accessing sites or museum collections remotely.
The 3D reproduction of objects, for instance, offers an alternative for groups such as individuals with visual impairments to approach works of art through touch. According to the company, this particular service can be used for educational purposes as well, enabling students to develop a direct, physical relationship with artefacts.
3D print of the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of ancient Rome. According to the legend, the female wolf nurtured the twins Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of the city. The original statue is displayed at the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Credit: Hi.Stories
Meli says that, after the pandemic, awareness of the need to use digital technologies for cultural valorisation and appropriation has grown. This has led to an increased demand for these services — especially regarding the creation of content and platforms that can be used in multimedia guide applications, webapps with AR, and immersive tours. Meanwhile, 3D models and prints have shown the biggest demand, partly because of their potential to improve the accessibility of exhibits.
In the video below, you can watch part of the startup’s 3D reconstruction and virtual tour of the Necropolis in Via Sant’ Euplio in Catania:
Currently, Hi.Stories counts one permanent and two external employees. Following an initial funding of €50K through its participation in the Cultura Crea project (which finances new Southern Italian businesses active in the cultural and creative industries), the startup has been relying on internal funding for its development.
In the next five years, Hi.Stories expects to have strengthened its position in Italy and aims to expand to international markets. While the startup’s location in Sicily has been a considerable barrier to overcome in establishing connections, Meli points out a more crucial difficulty for companies in the sector.
“When approaching a digital project for cultural heritage, the most important challenge is not to get carried away by the desire for digital experimentation while neglecting the most important aspect, which is to be at the service of culture,” — and that indeed makes all the difference.