Since presenting at the World Heritage Strategy Forum held at Harvard University a couple weeks ago, I’ve had a quote from the movie Jurassic Park at the back of my mind. Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, says “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And after reading about the installation of the Institute for Digital Archaeology‘s reconstruction of the Roman arch of Palmyra in New York, this quote continues to ring true in my mind.
I was surprised to hear about the Forum from a colleague via Twitter, and not from Harvard…where I work. Archaeology and the digital applications involved in it is my job, and I figured as an employee, I might be able to bypass the steep registration fee and attend. I was surprised and also thrilled when the director of the IDA invited the Sardis team not only to attend, but also to present. In three weeks we put together a presentation on the history and future of digital recording at Sardis, and at the Forum we found ourselves in good company. We met representatives from UNESCO, the World Customs Organization, archaeologists and cultural heritage representatives from Syria, Italy, France, the UK and beyond. There are so many people doing so many wonderful things in zones of conflict, natural disaster, and crisis. We learned about things going on at Harvard that we never knew existed. We made new contacts and learned about new technologies that may come in handy in our own work.
There were also a few moments that I can only describe as tone-deaf. I will not go into specifics. But one particularly problematic element looming over the entire Forum, at least for me, was the replica Arch of Palmyra. I had issues with the entire endeavor from the time I first heard about its installation in Trafalgar Square in London. Of course I am not the only one to criticize. There are major ethical issues at stake: is this too soon? Is cultural heritage disposable, in the sense that since we have the technology to create accurate replicas, that we do not need to worry about the originals? Why is money being spent on this when it could go to help efforts in curbing looting, or helping the thousands of people displaced by conflict? I decided to remain open, however, looking forward to hearing more about the genesis of the project, how it was executed, and how they envision it as a message.
And I was disappointed.
Yes, the technology was very sexy and fascinating. I was duly impressed. But it all ended up looking like a self-congratulatory, back-patting, neocolonial endeavor. It was unclear who, if anyone in Syria, whether archaeologists, heritage workers, or the general public wanted this to happen (“stakeholders” were mentioned, but no specifics). There were anecdotes about Syrians visiting the arch in Trafalgar square and praising it, but that was it. Who funded it? That also remained unclear.
Ethical issues of reconstruction, authenticity, and the ongoing war in Syria aside, my biggest problem is not the existence of the replica, not its technology, and not even its installation in entirely incongruous locations. It is the complete lack of context. In archaeology, context is everything, and the Institute of Digital Archaeology failed to provide context at Trafalgar Square and NYC.
This article by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic summarizes every last one of my concerns. There is no signage, no didactic material, no one there to explain to people why this replica stands where it does, or even that it’s a replica! The arch is not to scale. It was described as 1/3 size during the Forum, but I have seen 2/3 size reported in other sources. The arch is made out of Egyptian marble, not Syrian marble (for obvious reasons). Does anyone happening to pass by the replica know this? No. Anything to explain where Palmyra is? No. What existed and continues to exist there? No. What happened when the arch was destroyed? No. Why the the darn thing is standing in New York? No. Why this matters? No. Nothing.
Without context, this is a dead, fetishized object, and even though I do not support its creation on principle, this is an entirely missed opportunity for public education and real dialogue.
It’s too soon. The war in Syria is ongoing. So much rubble has yet to be cleared.