Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Palmyra and clickbait

Reporting on cultural heritage impacted by conflict is never an easy matter. After the outrage of the death of Khaled al Assaad, director of antiquities at Palmyra, last September I wrote a blog to highlight the level of destruction that Isil was causing but decided in the end not to post it since it might impact on conservation work we were undertaking in the UAE and on the staff we had there.

However, at least Palmyra is now recaptured, and it's good to share a few links on what is happening. Firstly it appears that despite the images of destruction beamed around the world, the broader archaeological site has been largely spared, with the site’s majestic amphitheater, rows of columns and other iconic ruins, whilst laced with explosives by Isis, ultimately spared.

As an interesting adjunct to my concerns about publishing my blog earlier in the year, there is a great article in The Art Newspaper by Jason Felch and Bastein Varoutsikos on how we should respond to the images of destruction of cultural heritage. Their principal point is that the images of destruction are 'clickbait' that play into Isil's hands every time we repost them. "It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes."

More broadly, the latest bimonthly News in Conservation published by IIC (International Institute for Conservation) is dedicated to the issue of the destruction and illegal trafficking of cultural heritage. It provides a great overview of the issues and the wide spread nature of this ill, from Timbuktu to Croatia, from Syria to Israel and Egypt.

As Peter Stone, the author of one of the articles and current head of UNESCO's Blue Shield program told me in January, the thing that changed interest in the UK in what Isis was destroying (and the will to do something about it) was their destruction of places that were so famous that even the blinkered public school educated British bureaucrats had heard of them.

To that end, Boris Johnson's Facebook posting on Palmyra and the desperate tragedy that is now Syria, along with the broader European refugee crisis, is worth reading. 

Palmyra may be safe for the time being, but we must not forget that the UN reckons nearly 300 important Syrian sites have been destroyed, badly damaged or looted since 2011, including 24 completely wiped out.

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