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Iconoclasm. The destruction and loss of heritage reconsidered.

Holtorf, Cornelius LU (2005) In Art in the Age of Terrorism
Abstract
In 2001, when the Taliban decided to destroy numerous cultural artefacts, including two colossal Buddha statues, that they considered incompatible with their faith, a large outcry was heard across the Western world. From the UNESCO to the British Museum, and from the Dalai Lama to countless head of governments, all were united in condemning this act of ’cultural terrorism’ that was said to prove nothing but the uncivilised character of the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. It made the later war all the more inevitable. Now that various different layers of dust have settled, it is time to reconsider this episode and some larger issues behind it. Is the preservation of cultural artefacts really a sign of civilization? Is their... (More)
In 2001, when the Taliban decided to destroy numerous cultural artefacts, including two colossal Buddha statues, that they considered incompatible with their faith, a large outcry was heard across the Western world. From the UNESCO to the British Museum, and from the Dalai Lama to countless head of governments, all were united in condemning this act of ’cultural terrorism’ that was said to prove nothing but the uncivilised character of the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. It made the later war all the more inevitable. Now that various different layers of dust have settled, it is time to reconsider this episode and some larger issues behind it. Is the preservation of cultural artefacts really a sign of civilization? Is their destruction really its largest enemy?

Although our own ’Western’ civilization has no particular good track record of saving ancient objects from destruction, it has surrounded itself by a fundamentalist ideology of preservation. What has been forgotten is that construction and destruction are closely interdependent on each other. Most archaeologists now work in contract archaeology which has been making ever more contributions to historical knowledge due to fast expanding development destroying more and more archaeological sites. Indeed, every archaeological excavation involves the destruction of the site being investigated. The links are even more fundamental though.

In the Western world, the value of sites perceived as ruins is directly dependent on the degree to which they have been destroyed. Similarly, in parts of Asia, where buildings are regularly being restored by rebuilding them, the destruction of the old substance is very much the precondition for the preservation of its spirit. Vice versa, the preservation of sites as they are today can imply a decision to stop existing practices of using or appreciating them, effectively putting an end to what they have been about to the present day. Preserving objects from the past can even destroy living memories.

Questions about the destruction of cultural artefacts are ultimately questions about specific sets of values and ideals. What is considered a destruction by some is likely to be seen as being about preservation by others. And what preservationists will want to keep would destroy something else. It is important to remember that the history of a site or artefact is not automatically ‘damaged’ when something is added or taken away. Quite the opposite: history is about change. In the extreme case of the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Centre, arguably far more history has been created than destroyed.

In sum, preservationism can be an unhelpful discourse of power that requires deconstruction. My examples will be archaeological, including S African rock art sites, illicitly traded Classical antiquities, the Afghan Buddhas, Sri Lankan stupas, remains of the Vietnam war, and recent mass graves in Argentina. (Less)
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author
organization
publishing date
type
Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding
publication status
published
subject
keywords
Heritage, iconoclasm, conservation, terrorism, destruction, preservation
in
Art in the Age of Terrorism
editor
Coulter-Smith, Graham
publisher
Holberton
ISBN
1903470412
language
English
LU publication?
yes
id
a7fff866-817e-4026-9c3d-02ffe3676105 (old id 534938)
date added to LUP
2007-09-26 08:58:11
date last changed
2016-04-16 09:20:02
@misc{a7fff866-817e-4026-9c3d-02ffe3676105,
  abstract     = {In 2001, when the Taliban decided to destroy numerous cultural artefacts, including two colossal Buddha statues, that they considered incompatible with their faith, a large outcry was heard across the Western world. From the UNESCO to the British Museum, and from the Dalai Lama to countless head of governments, all were united in condemning this act of ’cultural terrorism’ that was said to prove nothing but the uncivilised character of the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. It made the later war all the more inevitable. Now that various different layers of dust have settled, it is time to reconsider this episode and some larger issues behind it. Is the preservation of cultural artefacts really a sign of civilization? Is their destruction really its largest enemy? <br/><br>
Although our own ’Western’ civilization has no particular good track record of saving ancient objects from destruction, it has surrounded itself by a fundamentalist ideology of preservation. What has been forgotten is that construction and destruction are closely interdependent on each other. Most archaeologists now work in contract archaeology which has been making ever more contributions to historical knowledge due to fast expanding development destroying more and more archaeological sites. Indeed, every archaeological excavation involves the destruction of the site being investigated. The links are even more fundamental though. <br/><br>
In the Western world, the value of sites perceived as ruins is directly dependent on the degree to which they have been destroyed. Similarly, in parts of Asia, where buildings are regularly being restored by rebuilding them, the destruction of the old substance is very much the precondition for the preservation of its spirit. Vice versa, the preservation of sites as they are today can imply a decision to stop existing practices of using or appreciating them, effectively putting an end to what they have been about to the present day. Preserving objects from the past can even destroy living memories. <br/><br>
Questions about the destruction of cultural artefacts are ultimately questions about specific sets of values and ideals. What is considered a destruction by some is likely to be seen as being about preservation by others. And what preservationists will want to keep would destroy something else. It is important to remember that the history of a site or artefact is not automatically ‘damaged’ when something is added or taken away. Quite the opposite: history is about change. In the extreme case of the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Centre, arguably far more history has been created than destroyed.<br/><br>
In sum, preservationism can be an unhelpful discourse of power that requires deconstruction. My examples will be archaeological, including S African rock art sites, illicitly traded Classical antiquities, the Afghan Buddhas, Sri Lankan stupas, remains of the Vietnam war, and recent mass graves in Argentina.},
  author       = {Holtorf, Cornelius},
  editor       = {Coulter-Smith, Graham},
  isbn         = {1903470412},
  keyword      = {Heritage,iconoclasm,conservation,terrorism,destruction,preservation},
  language     = {eng},
  publisher    = {ARRAY(0xbe0eb98)},
  series       = {Art in the Age of Terrorism},
  title        = {Iconoclasm. The destruction and loss of heritage reconsidered.},
  year         = {2005},
}