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  • Introduction to Contemporary Art and the Deconstruction of HeritagePreservation By Other Means: Contemporary Art and Contested Heritage
  • Chad Elias (bio) and Mary K. Coffey (bio)

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Figure 1.

In this article from the Islamic State's digital newsletter Dabiq, the group explains their destruction of ancient artifacts in Nineveh Governate as a means of "erasing the legacy of a ruined nation." Their reference is both to ancient Assyria and modern Iraq. Dabiq, no. 8, March 30, 2015.

In recent years, museums and heritage sites in the Middle East have been attacked by Islamist groups, both as symbols of failed nation-states and as expressions of an idolatrous present. There is evidence to suggest that the iconoclastic actions carried out by the Taliban and Da'esh, the so-called Islamic State (IS), are motivated less by a theological adherence to aniconic monotheism than by a desire to violate the fetish-value that artifacts and monuments acquire within the modern "cult" of heritage.1 As Dario Gamboni has noted, "The concept of world heritage suffers from the fact that it amplifies an idea originating in the West and tends to require an attitude toward material culture that is also distinctly Western in origin."2 Indeed, the selective classification of certain sites as worthy of special protection has had the paradoxical effect of turning them into targets.3 This approach to preservation, which is intertwined with global imbalances in power, offers at least one source of motivation for recent acts of "image purification" by the IS. The group's ability to skillfully exploit the possibilities offered by the viral proliferation of digital media certainly complicates the claim that it is operating within a cultural and epistemological frame of reference that is essentially premodern in its attitude to images. Attuned both to the attention economies of click bait and the aesthetics of the video blog, the highly stylized images of iconoclasm produced and circulated by the IS implicate global audiences and institutions in the spectacle of destruction even as they seek to inspire outrage. Viewers are thus caught between the impulse to view these scenes of obliteration (knowing that their political efficacy relies on their digital circulation) and the no-less satisfactory option of ignoring their existence.4

Organizations like UNESCO and the International Council of Museums have consistently framed the attacks on Near Eastern archaeological artifacts as "a blow against the universal heritage of humanity."5 The Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) describes its ongoing efforts to reconstruct recently destroyed artifacts in no less expansive terms: "By using digital techniques to map and preserve monuments and other aspects of shared human history, we are able to ensure that nobody [End Page iii] can deny history or dictate that their narrative or ideology stands above the shared story of all humanity and our shared aspiration to live together in harmony."6 Yet the obligatory references to a common patrimony that transcends national boundaries and cultural differences fails to address the fraught historical interconnections between archaeology, museology, colonialism, and state formation, not just in the Arab world but also in any geopolitical context contending with the legacies of colonial and postcolonial dispossession.7 What in fact underlies the celebration of digital archaeology as salvific is the persistence of a largely unquestioned narrative: that preservation bureaucracies always act for the common good. Here again it is instructive to look at how the IDA frames its mission:

Digital archaeology represents the natural evolution of classical archaeology, permitting researchers to look at ancient objects in entirely new ways—to uncover hidden inscriptions, invisible paint lines, the faintest palimpsests—and to share these discoveries with the world. Beyond that, digital technologies can put these crucially important repositories of our cultural identity and shared history forever beyond the reach of those who would destroy them.8

The fanfare that surrounds high-profile replicas such as the twenty-foot marble facsimile of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph, unveiled in London's Trafalgar Square in 2016, positions emergent forms of digital reproduction as an effective substitute for material destruction. Produced with the aid of laser scanners and state-of-the-art 3D printers, these marble...


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pp. iii-xiii
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