By Laura Shipp
I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening of the insightful documentary ‘The Destruction of Memory’, an adaptation by Tim Slade of the book by Robert Bevan. Its focus was something that I had never before considered: the deliberate demolition of artefacts and monuments of cultural heritage. Yet the documentary also attempted to capture popular attention and emphasise just how expansive the impacts of these acts can be. They are highly emotive acts and are more often than not part of larger aggressions – parts of wars, conflicts and genocides. They may attempt to break the resolve of the ‘enemy’, for example, the allied carpet bombing of the historic city of Dresden, or they can be attempts to remove a culture from a place by not only destroying their past but also their future. The film’s resonant message was made all the more sobering when it showed these processes continuing to take place today, picturing sobering examples of memory destruction by ISIS.
The first visual of the film emphasises this. The camera lingers on an ancient building and its serene existence within that landscape. Then suddenly the building erupts into an explosion and a cloud dust. It is completely destroyed. We are taught throughout our lives that we must preserve the elements of our culture particularly as things that make us who we are. They are artefacts that make up and tell the story of our history and therefore play a part in our future. To see a monument like this be so deliberately destroyed not only seems wrong, but it is highly affective. It causes a lurch in your stomach; a visceral reaction at the loss of something that seems to have such a permanence in the landscape and something that symbolises the continuation of a culture.
As the narrative develops, we see endless historical examples of this destruction, for example, the Serbian attempt to remove all traces of Muslim architectural heritage alongside the genocide of the Bosnian War. Yet there is something quite different when we look at the acts of memory destruction perpetrated by ISIS, something that is happening much more at ground level. Instead of warplanes and missiles, we see diggers, dynamite and sledgehammers. Rudimentary demolition equipment is used to rip apart these ancient monuments, as pictured below, instead of huge scale aerial bombings the images and videos we see are of individuals manually ripping apart these historical artefacts seeming more like a group of vandals impulsively deciding they want to deface something.
CyArk and the Digitalisation of Memory
Yet these actions do not go un-resisted. People find their own ways to reclaim memory and defy attempts to destroy it. The tales of resistance were by far the most inspiring part of the documentary. These included stories of rebuilding or the reinterpretation of memory that follow them. For example, within Mosul museum, volunteers and workers there tried to save the artefacts before ISIS took Mosul. They placed sandbags around the objects layered glue on the surface of mosaics to stop them fracturing if they were bulldozed.
The documentary then lingered on an example of where this was taken into a digital age, with the not-for-profit organisation, CyArk. It is an organisation strives to digitalise monuments and relics around the world to allow future generations to be able to view them and access them. They create digital archives, and are also working on creating 3D digital versions of the monuments that the user can pan in and out of, move in any direction they want to, and explore the site in any manner they wish. Through this, CyArk claims to provide unique accesses to these sites in ways that have not been seen before.
Project Anqa, in particular, ties to document heritage sites that are ‘at-risk’ be that from violence or simply natural hazards or erosion. CyArk acts to immortalise the buildings before they are destroyed which is only made possible through the training and deployment of local professionals within this region. Individuals are taught how to use the 3D scanners to record aspects of sites like Damascus.
An excellent example of this is the Adad Gates in the region Nineveh in Iraq, which were destroyed by ISIS earlier this year. The gates were a prominent feature within the reconstructed walls of the city of which most is destroyed. The pictures below show the destruction of the gates and the before and after shots.
This region has been heavily archived by CyArk as one of its key projects and photographs, drawings, records and evidence of excavation of the site and many more pieces of it exist in digital form preventing them from being lost to ISIS. Although a 3D version of Adad Gates or any of Nineveh have not yet been produced, other examples, such as the Masjid Wazir Khan in Pakistan can be found here.
These become acts of resistance. They undermine the acts of memory destruction and attempt to sustain the legacies of places by making another version of them. It can almost act as a counter-narrative to those that ISIS is attempting to proscribe onto these sites, allowing them to keep some of their original meaning and values.
What I personally drew from the documentary was that in any case where there are intentions to destroy artefacts and monuments key to the heritage of a people, as terrible a story that may be, there are always incredible acts to attempt to save them, rebuild them or prevent the memory of them being lost. Their existence whether physically or within archives or photographs seem to have a permanence that surpasses that of any body, as part of the shared culture of a people. This suggests that with the digitalisation of many aspects of live we are seeing a new way to prevent memories from being lost.
Laura is a Geopolitics and Security MSc Student at Royal Holloway, following on from a Geography degree at the university. She has interests in feminist and critical geopolitics and is particularly interested in the everyday as a site for political action.
Bevan, R. (2016) The Destruction of Memory. Reaktion Books Ltd, London
Singer (No Date) ‘ISIS’s War on Cultural Heritage and Memory.’
Jones, C. (2016) ‘The Cleansing of Mosul’, The Gates of Nineveh., 16 June [Online]. Available at: https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/page/2/.
Tim Slade (2016) The Destruction of Memory. (Vast Productions: USA) Available at: http://destructionofmemoryfilm.com/gallery
Information on Cyark and their work: