Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction

October 27, 2015

I was going to write this blog on Saturday when I heard the legendary Harold Kalman speak at the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary.  I had the honor of being the opening keynote speaker on Thursday night, and Harold won at least two awards on Friday night, including one for lifetime achievement.  Notwithstanding his elder statesman role, he had some keen insights into where heritage is in 2015, and the keenest came when he answered the inevitable question.

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Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria.  BEFORE.

I got this question a lot during my years at Global Heritage Fund:  What can we do about the destruction of monuments by Daesh (ISIS) as recently happened in Palmyra?  Hal Kalman had an interesting answer distinguished by its lack of urgency.  Monuments get damaged and destroyed.  The Parthenon was pretty well blown to bits in the 17th century.  That Roman bridge I saw in the Ossola Valley got blown up in World War II, and yet there it is.

roman bridge

Kalman’s response was neither cavalier nor a call for reconstruction.  Indeed, the preceding discussion had focused on the 21st century approach to heritage – which was of course my topic Thursday night – which is an approach that has shifted from the preservation of physical materials to VALUES and ASSOCIATIONS.  This is the basis of reforms I have proposed in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Since the 1999 Burra Charter and the 2003 ICOMOS statement on intangible heritage, we have evolved to a new understading of What. We. Are. Trying. To. Preserve.

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From VOA TV Ashna via Twitter and Lionsroar.

Yesterday we saw these stunning images of 3-D holographic projections of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  Undertaken by a wealthy Chinese couple, the virtual reconstruction of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in February 2001 has garnered a ton of attention.  Have you heard of the Bamiyan Buddhas?  Of course you have.  And has their destruction by the Taliban erased them from your memory?  Have they been erased from our collective patrimoinie?  Au contraire.

I posted this on Facebook this morning and a friend commented “Would love to see this site someday.”  Think about that for a minute.  Didn’t the Taliban destroy it despite the protestations of millions around the world?  Isn’t it GONE?

No.  We want to see it and now we have the technology to do so.  We have been using technology to supplement and animate heritage sites for decades and the technology keeps getting better.  Heck, even in the 1960s you could go to Rome and by a book showing ancient Roman sites as they are with acetate pages that flipped onto the surviving elements and allowed you a vision of what the site looked like 2000 years before.

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Basilica of Maxentius NOW

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Basilica of Maxentius THEN

Hal Kalman quoted several recent scholars, including Australia’s Laurajane Smith and my friend Ned Kaufman who have focused on the preservation of values and associations.  The values and associations of the Bamiyan Buddhas have not gone away – you could argue that their physical destruction has even intensified those values and associations.

Now of course there are still the fragments, the niches in the walls, the valley context, so in many ways they are currently in a physical state not unlike the Basilica of Maxentius.  Unlike Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange, they have not been replaced by a careless hulk that not only erases but replaces their context.

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might make a nice hologram…

This is not to say we don’t want authenticity.  Indeed, the entire heritage enterprise is about authenticity and that is key to my call for the reform of historic preservation practice in the United States.  Authenticity is not found only in buildings or fragments of buildings.  As the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) stated:

“authenticity judgements may be linked to the worth of a great variety of sources of information. Aspects of the sources may include form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors.”

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Shinto temple, Ise, Japan.  A thousand years old and rebuilt every generation. Authentically.

Heritage is not a luxury, it is a fundamental social value that differentiates us from beasts.  The whole world is poised right now – as they have been since the start of the Syrian civil war – to run in and do something about all of this world heritage as soon as they are able.  Daesh (ISIS) has mobilized concern for sites of outstanding universal value just as the Taliban did before them, and contrary to their supposed motivations, they are increasing the value and association of these sites.

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Warsaw was rebuilt after World War II because it had to be and because we had incredibly good, precise documentation of what it looked like.  The Parthenon has been partly and may someday be entirely put back together despite the vandalous use of it as an ammunition depot by the Ottomans and the even more vandalous Venetian volleys that pelted it with a thousand shells during the siege of 1687.  The temple had survived incredibly intact until that point.

parthenon-back-pediment

But at least we have Nashville….

If we understand heritage in a mature way, and we welcome it as a future enterprise in an age of virtual reconstruction, the infantile destroyers will never be able to take it away from us.  It is like travel itself, not only a wonderful investment in your education and understanding, but an investment that cannot be stolen from you while you breathe.  You can take away a stone or knock down an arch or blow up a statue but you cannot take away our memories, our thoughts, our values, and our social conscience.

Destruction of Heritage

March 7, 2015

When cultural heritage is targeted for destruction, everyone asks us what can be done?   Can’t we swoop in and save these priceless millennia-old artifacts?  I get asked this question a lot.

mosque hurt

I remember wishing someone would invade Afghanistan in February 2001 before the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.  At the time it struck me that a murderous regime needs to keep its disaffected and indoctrinated youth busy smashing things or they will turn on their own.

KF killkidstree

Culture becomes a convenient rage outlet for murderous thugs, and one which has a similarly terrorizing effect on the population.  When I have been interviewed regarding destruction in Syria over the last two years I end up resorting to the same expressions of frustration and platitudes about the value of culture.  What can we do?

3rd kuruk scene fight

The first thing to remember is that there are real-life Monuments Men and Women who have been working to save these things inside war-torn regions.  These people exhibit tremendous courage trying to hide what they can and document what they can.  Second, Global Heritage Fund is working with other international organizations as well as technology experts to tackle this issue.  In a world where everyone has a cell phone and images can go worldwide in minutes, we have more tools than we used to.  Now we need to be creative about using them for documentation and mitigation.

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In the last week we have seen ISIS/ISIL inflict its suicidal nihilism on Nimrud, Nineveh and artifacts in the Mosul Museum.  This  follows similar acts they have undertaken in the territories they have taken over in Syria and Iraq.  They actively promote and distribute this hate as mandated by their crypto-religious ideology, although how it plays out reveals more mundane and material needs.  It is yet another example of how very important heritage is to humanity and how those who would burn books or destroy cultural artifacts are identical to those who would murder and undertake genocide.

ISIS_burns_rare_old_books_at_Mosul_Museum_Library

Terrorism is a state of mind and how convenient for reptilian ideologues that the mutilation and destruction of cultural artifacts can have a similar effect on a population as the mutilation and destruction of people.  My colleague Bob Stanton was quoted on Australian radio last Friday and appropriately noted how these actions erase deep layers of history and identity.  On purpose.  Rootless people are easier prey for demagogues.

isis-destroys-mosul-artifacts

These actions are also evidence of the economic underpinnings of this pseudo-state, which are much more important than the ideological stage dressing.  Stage One:  They loot and traffic antiquities to fund themselves.  This happened for two years.  What is happening now is different and the videos they have been distributing make this plainly clear:  Everything they have been destroying in Nimrud and Nineveh and Mosul is basically too BIG to sell on the black market.  They are less movable and thus less convertible to cash.

That means we are in Stage Two:  Immobile artifacts are commodified as part of ISISISIL viral marketing.  They become assets in their strategy to appeal to the reptilian and anti-establishment impulses common to young men especially, which is why they are less a local product than an international one.

Who wants the uncertainty of critical thought when you can have unyielding truth and certain death?

What can be done?  Step One is to shut down the markets, through whatever mechanisms are available.  Step Two is to somehow disrupt the marketing ISILISIS.  You may recoil in horror when you see the destruction, but those raised on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto see something enticing.

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Lamassu in Oriental Institute, Chicago

A corollary ripple effect in the world of cultural heritage is that the Mosul destruction – following many other such acts and simultaneously publicized with defacement of the Nineveh gate, has highlighted museums, primarily in the West, who collected artifacts from places like Iraq and Syria (and Egypt and Greece, etc.).  The Elgin Marbles notwithstanding, we are in an era when repatriation of artifacts to those places where they came from has become more common.  It was a growing phenomenon that called into question the encyclopedic museum.

OI egypt

But with the destruction in Nineveh and Mosul and Nimrud – and the recent burning of libraries in Mosul, Cairo and Timbuktu – as well as the ongoing ruin of nearly every heritage site in Syria –  many are arguing for the encyclopedic museum.  In the wake of these events, they appear as safe harbors.  You can still see pieces of ancient Iraq and Syria in London and Chicago and elsewhere.  The discussion has now shifted to what extraordinary methods to help evacuate heritage when danger approaches.  Repatriation just got further away.

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Sometimes evacuation is the solution. Global Heritage Fund  was involved with the Prince Claus Fund in the effort to save ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu when they were threatened in 2012 by Islamist militants.  The sad fact of that situation and so many others is that the most frequent targets of supposedly “Islamic” militants are in fact elements of Islamic heritage.

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British Museum, London

Beyond providing safe harbor, museums can help police and heritage professionals as they attempt to document sites, identify artifacts and disrupt the trade.  There are also new technological tools that could conceivably be deployed.  Archaeology has been revolutionized over the last decade with LIDAR, GPR, GIS, drones and a variety of other imaging and documentation tools.  Big Data can help as we look to antiquities markets and try to enforce the existing heritage conventions.

To deal with Stage Two, the thing that needs disruption is the marketing collateral of ISIS/ISIL.  For every historian who weeps when they see hooligans sledgehammering treasures, there are two Eastenders who think it is cool and want to do it too.  Someone needs to disrupt this market: right now they are feeding the beast.

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Assyrian at the Met

Focusing on ideology or even culture in this case crafts a misleading analysis.  These thugs are not the Other, and the current marketing campaign is aimed less at the so-called “Arab Street” than the banlieue.   This is not a regional enemy but an international magnet for alienation and hatred.

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Tripoli

Heritage is a nonrenewable resource.  What is lost is lost forever.  We will only stop the destruction when we see past the ideological pretensions to how these actions function to underpin this violent entity.