Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Zahi Hawass's Most Important Accomplishment: High-Res King Tut

Way back in 2008, I was invited to a conference being held in Alexandria, Egypt, about cultural heritage policy. There was a lot of talk about economic development through tourism, and a lot of quieter complaining about the damage tourists were doing to overvisited sites, and about inadequate budgets to enable the Supreme Council for Antiquities to do all it needed to do to protect, secure, and conserve its massive portfolio of sites and to improve its mostly dilapidated museums. One thing no one was talking about at that meeting was the possibility of tapping the vast revenue potential represented by image rights (except for trademarking the Pyramids, a pretty silly idea). I had run a conference several years earlier on the policy challenges of videogames and had learned that even then 3-D image-capturing was already beginning to be done, with the pilot project I recall being a 360-degree camera sweeping around the interior of Saint Peter's in Rome. It was not hard to imagine a huge demand by videogame makers and film makers for computer-generated graphics built out of laser-captured imagery allowing one to go into King Tut's tomb (imagine Spielberg wanting to make another Indiana Jones film and knowing he could have the "real" interior of the Pyramid of Giza if he paid a licensing fee). I raised this idea at the meeting, to resounding silence.

Little did I know that Zahi Hawass had already made a deal, back in 2002, for something like what I was suggesting. Only a decade later, the imagery is beginning to be made public. Here's a story about it. What's missing from the story is the economic boon the imagery represents. For that, one needs to go to the report by the company doing the work for the SCA. The key sentence is buried deep in the report, but is reassuring: "The copyright of the data will belong to the Supreme Council of Antiquities."

This might be the best thing that Zahi Hawass accomplished. It should pay dividends forever, and is a win-win-win: fragile tombs can be closed to save them from further degradation by overtouristing; licensing of image rights will bring in a substantial and permanently renewable revenue stream; and the ability of millions of people to see, in movies and videogames, the incredible beauty of Egyptian antiquity as never before shown to them will also act as a powerful advertising tool to spur future tourism.

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