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Assessing the damage: London’s Imperial War Museum highlights cultural destruction at times of conflict

Bamiyan Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan which was subsequently destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

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Ruins of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, following destruction by ISIS in August 2015. © Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

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British Army poster from 1943, created to educate and inform its soldiers of the importance of respecting property, including cultural heritage © IWM (Art.IWM PST 18865)

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British poster from 1915, which denounced German forces’ destruction of culture and heritage in an effort to drive recruitment. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13606)

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Jacket, part of a self-designed uniform, which belonged to Hermann Goering, one of Adolf Hitler’s most powerful senior officers. © IWM (UNI 562)

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Burnt page fragment from the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo which was destroyed by Serbian forces in 1992. © András Riedlmayer Collection on Balkan Cultural Heritage. Special Collections. Fine Arts Library, Harvard University

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In 2001, the Taliban published a video documenting their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas – a major UNESCO world Heritage site in central Afghanistan. These monumental sixth-century Buddhas were deliberately targeted as a means of erasing pre-Islamic history, and their iconoclasm demonstrates the devastating effect that war can have on our cultural heritage.

The video is now on display at a major new exhibition, What Remains, which opened last week at the Imperial War Museum in London. Curated in partnership with Historic England, the show brings together a collection of more than 50 photographs, oral histories, documents, digital objects and artworks, exploring the intersection between cultural heritage and war. It forms part of a wider series, Culture Under Attack, which comprises a free season of exhibitions, music, performances and events taking place at the museum until 5 January 2020.

The exhibition examines the motivations behind cultural artefacts being attacked and also the reverse: why the human psyche compels us to protect and preserve objects of cultural significance. This dichotomous approach demonstrates how cultural objects are valued by both the perpetrator and the victim – by those who destroy and by those who preserve cultural heritage – reflecting the complex and yet binary nature of war and conflict.

“War has always damaged heritage, but modern warfare is particularly destructive” says curator Carl Warner. “Homes, neighbourhoods, towns and whole cities are under threat from modern shells and bombs. We hope that visitors are encouraged to question how we respond as individuals, communities and nations to the void often left behind.”

To achieve this, the show combines a mixture of sound work, visual culture and interactive digital content. Exhibits range from a set of archaeology awareness playing cards (which the US armed forces used to advise troops on the importance of protecting cultural property), to the uniform of Nazi party leader Hermann Goering, to 3D prints of sculptures destroyed by Islamic State when they ransacked Iraq’s Mosul Museum in 2015. Particularly noteworthy among these prints are the Lion of Mosul, an Assyrian guardian lion statue recreated using crowd-sourced photographs, and Unknown King of Haar, inside of which Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has embedded a flash drive containing images, video and documents relating to the reconstruction.

What Remains ultimately reminds us that the preservation and rebuilding of damaged heritage is a highly contentious and subjective matter, open to debate. An interactive touch-screen reiterates this point, posing questions to the audience on topics such as whether it is better to create new buildings instead of preserving old ones in the aftermath of conflict, and displaying the percentile of answers compared to other visitors. As Warner reiterates, this debate should involve us all. “We [want] to make the preservation of heritage more than just an academic issue,” he says. “[For] in order for any real debate to gain proper traction nationally and internationally, it needs to be popularly supported.”

What Remains is on show at the Imperial War Museum, London until 5 January 2020

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Assessing the damage: London’s Imperial War Museum highlights cultural destruction at times of conflict

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