I had just sat down after a long day at work, and the minute I opened FB I saw a post with a photo showing smoke billowing out of Notre- Dame. The photo almost looked like a surreal painting.

Not wanting to believe what I was seeing, hoping it was some joke in bad taste or fake news, I clicked the news streams on Google. Within seconds all the major news portals started streaming live video of Notre-Dame going up in flames.

As I watched the magnificent temple engulfed by smoke and flames, the feeling of incredulity and sheer disbelief was quickly replaced by dread, horror, shock and helplessness. Someone wrote that if Paris has the Louvre, France has Notre-Dame.

But Notre-Dame is more than just a French heritage building; it is also a symbol of Christian Europe and European heritage. I felt heartbroken watching the tragedy unfold on screen.

The live feeds showing the fire spreading, the spire tumbling down into the flames and the young people gathered in prayer singing as they watched their church burn were almost a bit too much to watch.

Social media united people from all over the world in a tsunami of emotions. People were overwhelmed as they watched the Notre-Dame de Paris, with all that it represented, burn in front of their eyes.

Technology will ensure that what the fire destroyed will be rebuilt and restored in the shortest and fastest possible time

Yet joy comes after tears, after sadness comes hope. The next day news that most of the building structure had survived the conflagration, that the south rose window was still standing and a photo of a cross standing resolute on the main altar despite the destruction all around, flooded the web.

My hope lies in technology. The Notre- Dame tragedy highlights why so much time, effort and money is spent documenting, digitising and scanning heritage buildings that help us better understand, preserve and explain what makes up our identity.

Luckily for us all, Notre-Dame is one of those heritage buildings which has been scanned, digitised and studied in so much detail over the past years. This will help in the reconstruction and restoration efforts which have been announced and pledged while the embers were still glowing.

Technology will ensure that what the fire destroyed will be rebuilt and restored in the shortest and fastest possible time yet in the most accurate and most faithful way possible. 

Digital technology has been recognised as a key technological solution to preserve, enrich and open up our cultural heritage for the benefit of today’s citizens and future generations.

This tragedy shows why it is so important to invest so many more resources in order to digitise and document, to better analyse, interpret and narrate our tangible and intangible heritage.

Unluckily not all heritage sites are as well documented as Notre-Dame. What if the same accident were to happen to one of our unique churches or heritage sites? While technology will not spare heritage from the ravages of war, natural disasters and social unrest, it does help us preserve a legacy, our identity as Europeans. 

As a nation we have an obligation to preserve and document our heritage before tragedy strikes. Technology gives us the tools to collect a wealth of information about our heritage which is a reflection of who we are as Maltese and Europeans.

Until Notre-Dame is restored to its former glory we can at least sleep assured that we have so much information, which we can refer to and build on. Let this be a lesson to us all to preserve and digitise what we have before it’s too late. Time is not on our side.

Buildings fall into disrepair, books fade, memories are lost with each generation. Let this be a lesson to us all to preserve, share and extend the benefits of our rich European identity.

Tony Cassar is a museum multimedia designer.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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