Interview with Professor Nicola Lercari

July 25, 2015

"I'm one of the first results of the interdisciplinary "new deal" in academia."

Hailing from Genoa, Italy, Professor Nicola Lercari showed an interest in archeology and culture from an early age. Surrounded by culture spanning millennium, Lercari found it hard not to be attracted to the history portion of World Heritage.

"Being Italian, we are constantly exposed to over 1,000 years of history, just when you walk around," Lercari said. "I always loved museums. When I was a kid, like many, I wanted to be an archeologist."

However, Lercari's stake in history would take a long time to come around. His bachelor's degree from the University of Genoa was in media studies, which helped establish passion for media production. Film school was the next stop, where he studied film making and the critical analysis of multimedia productions, which led into 3-D modeling and visualization. 

Lercari's involvement on a project called "Second Life" was the first thing to catch UC Merced's eye. His initial journey to the United States came was a 10-month stay at UC Merced, as he collaborated on postdoctoral research with Professor Maurizio Forte. However, with the opportunity to begin teaching his own courses, what was planned as a short stay continues even now.

After completing his postdoctoral work at Duke University, Lercari became very involved 3-D data visualization and modeling, and he returned to UC Merced as a world heritage lecturer. Six years later, Lercari is now a large portion of the World Heritage program at UC Merced, leading the development of a World Heritage Lab on campus, where he will be able to utilize his visualization experience.

While people are most often involved first with archeology or history, rather than 3-D modeling, Lercari's unique approach to world heritage is not only seen in his entrance to the program. Lercari says there is often a very "institutional way to categorize, describe and protect heritage" due to the collaboration with large research organizations like UNESCO, ICCROM, etc.

"What I'm very interested in is the public dimension of world heritage, the involvement of local communities — a bottom-up perspective," Lercari said. "I really like to have people involved in the perservation, care and awareness."

This perspective is very evident when Lercari speaks about his future plans to involve the local communities of Mariposa, Coulterville and others in preserving their unique heritage. He hopes these interactions will help convince other local stakeholders of the value and benefit of preserving their culture.

For the past five years, Lercari has been involved with an excavation in Turkey at a site called Çatalhöyük. The past two summers have seen him take extended stays at the area, working with teams of professional archeologists, conservators, ecologists and botanists, and all kinds of students. Speaking about this topic, Lercari lays out his vision of world heritage for the future.

Many of the people you see in this film are students from various insitutions around the world.

"The project is an excavation of an archeological site," Lercari said. "The conservation of the site is critical — my new interest, and how my research will unfold in the future, will be more toward the digital preservation and conservation of heritage."

This ties in with one of the major initiatives he has pushed this previous year. With a unveil date of Fall 2016, UC Merced and the World Heritage program will introduce a research lab in the new Classroom and Office Building 2. Equipped with all types of cutting edge computers, and a 3-D visualization facility, the lab will serve as a research and training resource for staff members, researchers and students. Lercari hopes to have a couple of Oculus Rifts motion-tracking devices. The lab would be a mesh of commodity/consumer devices as well as professional devices, such as differential GPS, laser scanning, drones and one or two high-end visualization facilities. [Read more on what this means in our write-up on the Symposium on Virtual Reality]

The lab would also serve as a meeting place for the World Heritage Undergraduate Fellows.

"I think, in terms of growth, (field research) has a terrific value," he said. "You're learning while doing."

One of Lercari's goals for the coming year is to provide a handful of undergraduate students with research opportunities, the first of which would be in the local town of Coulterville. Inspired by the changes he saw in the student researchers at Çatalhöyük, Lercari hopes to bring the World Heritage Fellows on a summer research program in 2016. [Read more on the World Heritage Fellowship and how to apply]

You can find Professor Lercari teaching the graduate course "IH 206: Methods and Research in the Interdisciplinary Humanities" this semester.

"That's what I really like about Merced," he said. "Having such a diverse student population can foster a really great discussion in the classroom."