The Million Image Database
This week on my Facebook news feed, having garnered hundreds of ‘likes’ and 'shares', an image surfaced of an Iraqi man breaking down in tears at the British Museum as he viewed a series of objects pertaining to his cultural heritage: part of the museum’s vast collection of antiquities from what today we call Syria and Iraq. Of course, the British Museum has never been allowed to forget its colonial connotations - and rightly so – though the IS-led destruction of tangible cultural heritage, most famously, though by no means exclusively at Palmyra, Nineveh and Nimrud has arguably reinvigorated the case for museums as secure depositories for precious objects.
The ever-controversial and politically-charged debate as to where much of the British Museum’s collections belong aside, what the picture illustrates so beautifully is that these objects still matter. They bear witness to ancient civilizations and a pre-Islamic history of a region that terror groups would rather have us forget.
One question that has been posed time and again by critics of the international community’s response to the conflict in Syria and Iraq is, ‘why are we so concerned with these material objects when people are dying on such a devastating scale?’. In an interview with the BBC, Alexy Karenowska from the Institute for Digital Archaeology responds succinctly to this question: “Of course all of this stuff takes second place to human life, but these cultural objects are very important to give a sense of place and community."
The British Council uses a particularly interesting analogy to illustrate the importance of preserving cultural heritage:
‘Hollywood movies that seek to terrify their audiences with apocalyptic scenarios tend to use the destruction of iconic buildings and structures as their climactic image. In one example, the audience knows that New York has turned into a wasteland, not because it sees a wasteland, but because only the torch held aloft by the statue of liberty is visibly poking through the sands that now submerge the city; the Golden Gate Bridge is torn apart by a tidal wave; the statue of Admiral Nelson lies in pieces at the foot of a crumbling column, and so on. Why can those images be so much more effective and horrifying than images of human beings dying? It is because they speak of the destruction of an entire city, a society, a nation, a civilisation, and a way of life. The destruction represents not just the destruction of those immediately living alongside these monuments, but of entire generations.’
With this in mind, it was announced in late 2015 that the aforementioned Institute for Digital Archaeology will lead a project to erect two 50-ft tall replicas of the arched entrance to Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in both Times Square and Trafalgar Square, an initiative supported by the likes of Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future. The plan comes as a result of a UNESCO-backed drive to distribute specially adapted cameras to volunteers on the ground in Syria and Iraq, whose photographs are uploaded to an online database before being processed to produce virtual renderings of these threatened sites.
Later, the replica will be constructed through use of 3D-printing – the use of which has prompted headlines describing the Institute for Digital Archaeology as ‘The New Monuments Men’, using technology to fight the militants’ assault on culture. In conversation with the Smithsonian Magazine, executive director of the Institute, Roger Michel, described the initiative as “a political statement, a call to action, to draw attention to what is happening in Syria and Iraq and now Libya”. “We are saying to them ‘if you destroy it we can rebuild it again’”.
At Art Represent, our recent exhibition of prints by displaced Syrian artist Imranovi underlined the brutal cost of conflict on Syria’s people, and the role that art can play as a form of activism. Whilst Imranovi’s works focus on the role of the Assad regime as the driving force for what has since unfolded in his homeland, the Institute for Digital Archaeology’s project instead sends a powerful message to those attempting to fill the power vacuum in Syria: that their attempts to erase both history and cultural memory will not succeed.
For those of you who want to check it out, the arch is scheduled to go on display at Trafalgar Square in April’s heritage week.
By George King