Recognising the loss

Nicola Sullivan, 22.04.2015
Cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria
Last week I went to the Culture in Crisis conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

In some ways attending a conference about cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria held in such sumptuous surroundings perfectly illustrates the chasm that exists between watching an IS propaganda video showing militants blowing up an ancient city and actually walking among the rubble and the dust.
While film footage of the destruction that occurred at Nimrud near the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul is frighteningly easy to access, although speakers at the conference agreed to only show stills, the extent of the loss is much harder to quantify or imagine for many people in countries like the UK, which is, in fact, well placed to offer expertise on emergency heritage.

When listening to the speakers at the V&A, I realised what a crucial role museum professionals have to play in making a loss, that might otherwise seem abstract to many, real and tangible. If they succeed, perhaps governments will be mobilised to assist in the restoration of the cultural heritage when IS-held territories are eventually liberated, although this could be several years down the line yet.

Tim Stanley, a senior curator at the V&A and a Middle East expert said the destruction being seen in Iraq and Syria equates to what was seen across Europe during the second world war and John Curtis, the president of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, described the cultural destruction at the hands of IS as “unparalleled in modern times”, and added that it had largely been ignored by the mainstream media.

Nimrud is around 20 miles south of Mosul and was the location of several palaces of Assyrian kings. Damage here followed similar destruction of artefacts in the Mosul Museum and at the Nergal Gate, which stands at the entrance to the ancient royal city of Nineveh.    

Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, said this kind of cultural heritage is of such immense importance that “once it is lost it can never be fully recovered” and another speaker said the world was witnessing the “iconoclastic” destruction of monuments and shrines.

Steps are also being taken to offer hands-on support to help people working for cultural institutions in Syria and Iraq cope with the devastating destruction of cultural sites and artefacts by Islamic State (IS) militants. The British Museum is instigating a programme for Iraqi heritage professionals, which involves training in emergency retrieval strategies, architectural restoration and conservation and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC is providing basic emergency training and equipment to some Syrians.  

Those museums and cultural institutions that don’t have the resources to provide this kind of hands-on support still have an important role to play. That is to raise awareness and illustrate the impact and significance of lost heritage in environments of conflict, so that it fuels relevant debate and lobbying activities, such as those surrounding the UK government's failure to ratify the Hague Convention, in their home countries.