A fascinating new display at London’s Imperial War Museum details examples ranging from Iraq’s Mosul Museum to the city of Babylon
Visitors entering one of the rooms of the Imperial War Museum in London are greeted with some pertinent words of wisdom: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” They come from the plaque outside the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, a place once systematically plundered and vandalised by Taliban soldiers. The slogan now both prefaces and underpins What Remains, an exhibition that explores 100 years of cultural heritage as a casualty of war – not caught in the crossfire, but strategically selected and deliberately destroyed.
The scope of this exhibition is made immediately apparent by a long frieze of large photographs comprising scenes of devastation from world wars – the Korean War, the Yugoslav Wars and the ongoing civil conflict in Syria. Displays home in on cultural destruction and desecration from each clash.
There are pictures of ruined cities, bombed cathedrals and burnt books. Some images of senseless violence are hard to ignore and harder still to fathom, from the picture of the blaze engulfing the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo to the stills from an ISIS propaganda video showing the destruction of “false gods” in Iraq’s Mosul Museum.
Equally disturbing are the accounts of looting over the century. A photograph album catalogues the artworks the Nazis “confiscated” from Jewish families. Two aerial-view photographs of Dura Europos, a 60-hectare ancient site in Syriathat has played host to many an illegal archaeological excavation, invite us to compare and contrast: in an image from 2012, the ground is semi-intact, while in the other, taken two years later, it is riddled with holes from countless digs.
A whole exhibition of this kind of content would be dispiriting. Fortunately, there are other sections devoted to the efforts of dedicated people and groups to protect and rebuild cultural heritage. Some creative people have recreated destroyed artefacts from Mosul Museum. One is London-born painter and sculptor Piers Secunda. After a visit to the museum in 2018 and taking stock of the premeditated cultural destruction – “the most significant the Middle East has ever seen”, he says – Secunda set about moulding the damaged surfaces of sculptures and then using the moulds to create a series of artworks. One piece, ISIS Damage Painting: Genie Head, consists of two reproductions of an ancient Assyrian relief, one virtually intact, the other pockmarked with holes.
Unknown King of Hatra is a 3D plastic sculpture by the Iranian artist and activist Morehshin Allahyari, from her project Material Speculation: ISIS. Ingeniously embedded within the sculpture is a flash drive and memory card containing images, videos and documents relating to the original object.
Another 3D replica is the Lion of Mosul, once a colossal Assyrian structure that guarded the entrance of the Temple of Ishtar in Nimrud, Iraq. ISIS destroyed it in 2015 while it was on display at the Mosul Museum. Now, after a painstaking salvage operation using crowdsourced photographs, we are able to view a beautiful digital reconstruction produced by Google Arts & Culture.
Elsewhere, we admire the endeavours and the results of the Syrian Stonemasonry Training Scheme, an initiative by the World Monuments Fund that teaches Jordanians and Syrians traditional skills to repair or restore historical buildings.
As we take in the wealth of before-and-after pictures, the damning documents, wrenching oral histories and inventive restoration jobs, we are made more aware of the momentous challenges faced by those committed to preserving or repairing treasured places and objects. Prevention being better than cure, the British Army recently set up the Cultural Property Protection Unit, a specialist task force – and latter-day “Monuments Men” – charged with protecting cultural heritage in war zones. One CPPU senior adviser told the Guardian that “culturecide is being seen to be a parallel occupation with genocide, to deliberately destroy cultural identity”.
And yet detractors will argue that this is an extra responsibility for already overburdened army commanders. Should soldiers whose principal objectives are staying alive and neutralising their enemy also be safeguarding cultural property? And how will they be able to identify those buildings or artefacts deemed culturally significant?
Then there is the problem of cultural heritage ending up as collateral damage. The exhibition shows various means of educating troops going into battle. Look without Looting is a British Army poster from 1943, devised to instruct soldiers about the sanctity of a country’s cultural heritage. There is a set of Archaeology Awareness playing cards, created by the US Department of Defence in 2007 for use by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, each one featuring an illustration of a rare site or artefact, plus a nugget of practical advice, such as “Ancient walls of mud brick are easily damaged” and “Drive around not over archaeological sites”.
But despite these measures, acts of vandalism are still carried out, and others are expected to pick up the pieces – one flagrant example being the damage to the city of Babylon by coalition forces in 2003. It beggars belief that this recently declared Unesco World Heritage Site was used as an army base, complete with helicopter landing pad. The British Museum reported that it was “tantamount to establishing a military camp around Stonehenge”.
The issue of restoration is just as complex. The exhibition’s curator, Iris Veysey, acknowledges there are many different perspectives. “For example, some people believe the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, should be rebuilt, but others believe they should not. What role do people who live in areas affected by war have in prioritising reconstruction? In recent conflict zones like Iraq and Syria, who gets to choose what is most important to salvage and what deserves the world’s attention? These are questions which we hope our visitors will reflect on,” Veysey adds.
Over two nights in 2015, a pair of Chinese documentary makers, who were deeply affected by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, projected a hologram image of the taller statue into its empty cavity. They then donated the $120,000 (Dh440,000) projector to the Afghan people as a gift from China. It was a noble enterprise but also a stopgap solution: debate still continues as to whether the structures should be rebuilt.
In contrast, the exhibition shows a design proposal for permanent new housing in Homs, Syria, by an architect who has lived and worked there throughout the war. Marwa Al Sabouni’s elaborate building – part of a redevelopment plan for the razed district of Baba Amr that was rejected by the authorities – comprises interconnecting sections (called “tree units”) to encourage togetherness among the inhabitants. “The main focus,” Al Sabouni has said, “should be on creating places that make their people feel they belong. Architecture and planning need to recapture some of the traditional values that did just that, creating conditions for co-existence and peace.”
Alongside this drawing is one by another Syrian architect, Ammar Azzouz, portraying the city frozen in time before the outbreak of hostilities. He views reconstruction as a chance to heal wounds inflicted by war. “But,” he cautions, “if the reconstruction excludes certain societies and benefits only the few… then reconstruction could also be a re-destruction.”
The restoration of ancient treasures will always divide opinion. Preventing them from being damaged, looted or reduced to rubble continues to be a struggle. Better care needs to be taken and lessons still have to be learnt. Those who care little about past wonders or the past in general would do well to heed the words of Khaled Al Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist and head of antiquities at Palmyra, who paid the ultimate price – with his life – at the hands of ISIS for protecting the cultural heritage he held dear: “A human without history is a human with no future.”
What Remains is being exhibited at the Imperial War Museum, London, until Sunday, January 5, 2020. For more information, visit www.iwm.org.uk