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DEFENding our right to the past

As ISIS destroys millennia-old cultural sites, art history professor Rhonda Reymond advocates for preserving our past.

PHOTO BY RYAN DENTON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

During the spring of 2015, members of the so-called Islamic State destroyed ancient cultural heritage sites in northern Iraq. 

Using a compressed-air drill, they destroyed a statue of a Lamassu — a winged bull with the head of a man — standing nearly 15-feet tall and weighing nearly 30 tons and standing at the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh. Nearby in the Mosul Museum, ISIS pushed over statues and defaced others with sledgehammers and jackhammers, damaging artifacts that came into being thousands of years ago when the Assyrians ruled that part of the world. 

Later that year, ISIS exploded the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, a structure that was almost 2,000 years old and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

ISIS posted the videos of the Mosul destruction online for the world to see. The reason? They claim the statues and reliefs of animals and humans are a forbidden form of worship. 

Those who study art destruction offer answers of power, control, propaganda and the infliction of pain. 

Unfortunately, not all of the monuments destroyed were documented, and to some art historians, these acts represent “one of the worst cultural heritage disasters of all times,” says Eckart Frahm, Yale professor of Assyriology, said. 

But looting and destruction of art and cultural objects is not a new phenomenon. It goes back to ancient times — across continents and many different civilizations. The Romans were particularly greedy, destroying architecture like the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and looting many sculptural works from Greece in order to claim their military victories and to claim ownership of these cultural artifacts. 

During World War II and Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, many cultural items were stolen from European countries, including paintings, ceramics, gold, currency, books and religious treasures. Although many were recovered after the war by agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program — made famous by the movie “The Monuments Men” — many are still missing. 

“Cultural heritage is an extremely important subject right now, and its destruction is undermining the stability and security of nations,” said Rhonda Reymond. 

Reymond, an art history professor at the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts, studies and teaches about the global destruction of cultural heritage — not just to document these losses but to create a greater awareness of the world’s cultural heritage and to advocate for the preservation of cultural resources among future generations. 

This Lamassu at the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, Iraq, stood the test of time in remarkably good condition for generations until ISIS militants took a compressed air drill to its face in 2015.   

This Lamassu at the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, Iraq, stood the test of time in remarkably good condition for generations until ISIS militants took a compressed air drill to its face in 2015. (Photo Credit: DE AGOSTINI/ARCHIVIO J. LANGE)

“It is important to study the reasons for cultural heritage crimes, look for patterns of similarities and to distinguish differences dating back from ancient Assyrian purges to today,” she said. “But I am most concerned with what is happening today to our cultural heritage and in safeguarding it now and in the future. It is about saving cultures, but it is also vital for security and plays a key role in building peace and resolving conflicts. It preserves identity and the memory of mankind, encourages dialogue and engenders tolerance and mutual understanding.” 

Historically, Reymond said, there are many reasons for the destruction or looting of cultural property and heritage — power, propaganda, profit, religious control, status, consolidation of great cultures, the destruction of roots and cultural identity, neglect or disregard for objects, illicit trafficking and more. 

Most recently, cultural heritage has been construed as a human rights issue. In other words, one cannot separate objects or manifestations of culture from people and their rights to their heritage. 

Reymond also points out that cultural heritage is more than arches, pyramids and paintings. It encompasses intangible things like customs, practices, performances and other forms of artistic expression — things that are inherited from previous generations so that they can be maintained and enjoyed by future generations. 

“It may sound abstract or even overwhelming, but when you break it down and think about cultural heritage on a personal level — tangible or intangible — it makes sense,” she said. 

“Sometimes I’ll ask my students if they have a family heirloom or practice that has been passed down through their families. Most do, and they connect immediately with the memory of that item or that custom and relate to how harmful it would be to destroy something so precious. It gets them thinking about why art matters.” 

Rhonda Reymond in the collection at the Art Museum of WVU.

Rhonda Reymond, art history professor at WVU, pictured here in the Art Museum of WVU’s collection, is advocating for the preservation of cultural heritage to keep our human story intact. (Photo Credit: Raymond Thompson Jr.)

Reymond and WVU are finding ways to support cultural preservation. 

Reymond participated in a workshop through CyArk, a nonprofit group that is creating 3-D digital records of cultural sites around the world. WVU Landscape Architecture Professors Charlie Yuill and Peter Butler support the University’s status as a Technology Center with CyArk. They’ve been trained to the organization’s standards for digital preservation, and Yuill takes laser scans of cultural artifacts in Ireland. 

A proposed new course in digital documentation in the College of Creative Arts School of Art and Design’s Technical Art History program is in the works. It would include techniques such as photography, computational photography, on-site conservation, polarized microscopy, 3-D scanning and introductory modeling. The technical art history degree itself represents a relatively new field that integrates art history, material science, art and object conservation. 

As a select Honors Faculty Fellow, Reymond is teaching a course this fall, “Whose Culture? Global Art Crime,” that further studies historical and contemporary issues surrounding the destruction of cultural objects. 

“There are not too many courses around the country being taught like ours. It’s a little different perspective,” she said. “We’ll be engaging in big questions about culture and values, global interdependence, respect, economies and human dignity.” 

Reymond called this spring “a banner time” for cultural heritage. In March, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a historic resolution about the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflicts. 

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said, “Defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue. It is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.” 

“Weapons are not enough to defend violent extremism. Building peace requires culture also; it requires education, prevention and the transmission of heritage.” 

Reymond also cited a G-7 meeting that declared “culture as an instrument of dialogue among peoples” that essentially reaffirmed that cultural heritage is an important tool for growth and economic development. 
“Cultural heritage is an extremely important subject right now and its destruction is undermining the stability and security of nations.” — RHONDA REYMOND
Science and philanthropy are also supporting the preservation of cultural heritage. 

Reymond is excited about new nanotechnologies coming out of the increased interest in cultural heritage and protection, including a new traceable liquid that is painted on objects and, under a certain type of light, is visible. It was recently used in Syria so that objects stolen from a particular site could be identified if they are removed and end up for sale on the black market. 

And UNESCO has raised more than $75 million as part of a $100 million for the Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones. 

Reymond is hopeful that her work will create a better understanding of the destruction of cultural heritage that has taken place over centuries, and ways to educate oneself and others to intervene — whether it is documenting and taking inventory of cultural property, taking additional steps to safeguard and protect cultural sites and objects or working to recover these treasures when a crime is committed. 

She also hopes her work with her students and others will lead to more advocacy for the arts through serving on local boards and committees, supporting the arts and humanities council, advocating for state preservation tax credits, supporting museums and libraries, taking care of archaeological sites and supporting the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. 

“Getting involved in any of these entities will help save cultural heritage,” she said.

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