Before I wrote about the British Museum’s Assyrian galleries, Islamic State released shocking footage of ultimate vandalism at Nimrud (the images here are screen grabs). It shows men using power tools and large amounts of dynamite to destroy classic and important examples of the type of works in the BM, and other museums, that had remained in situ at the world heritage site. Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper calls it “the worst case of deliberate destruction of an archaeological site in living memory”.
The actions, and the way they are filmed and edited (including carefully selected slow-motion segments) are clearly designed to upset the likes of us who care about these things. International reaction to earlier destruction had shown the world cares. So IS knows it’s onto a winner, and lays on fresh destruction – apparently with the help of former media students.
The obvious and necessary way to stop this is to stop IS. But there is another process that needs to occur, with more long term significance. We must share our enthusiasm and understanding of ancient cultures with everyone, and perhaps especially with those people who geographically and historically “own” them. Collections like the British Museum’s should be part of that process – indeed, the opportunities for learning and engagement are of course one of the things that make good museum collections precious, and more than just tourist draws . Restitution campaigns, however well meaning, can sometimes seriously disrupt such engagement, by creating divisions that foster ignorance.
Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the BM’s Department of the Middle East, has it exactly right as the Art Newspaper reported him saying a few days ago about the situation in Iraq.
“We need to get over the threshold of despair,” he said. “We can do something positive and constructive by preparing for the time when effective government control is restored.”
The BM hopes to work with Iraqi colleagues to train professionals in rescue archaeology and emergency heritage management, and then join them back in Iraq to address the problems on the ground. This is visionary stuff.