Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh


On her book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice

Cover Interview of April 03, 2019

The wide angle

The intentional destruction of cultural heritage in peace and war, the looting of artifacts and their trafficking by criminal networks, as well as contests over the ownership, function, and meaning of art, occupy newspaper headlines and constitute the pressing issues of cultural heritage today.

In 2015, for instance, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) turned the destruction of art into mass spectacle. Its operatives filmed the destruction of art in the Mosul Museum and the blasting of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, then edited the film into highly curated videos that were then amplified through social media to manipulate public perception and instill outrage and terror. Meanwhile, the wealthiest people in the world have resorted to opaque financial acrobatics involving offshore businesses and shell companies to conduct semi-legal or illegal trade in art that evades scrutiny and confuses restitution claims. Western museums display, and auction houses put up for sale, objects that were illegally excavated or unlawfully removed from places of worship, that entered circulation on the art market due to war, colonialism, civil unrest, atrocities, or sheer desperation. In some instances, museums have been forced to return unlawfully acquired objects, often in the wake of litigation or negotiation.

Although the recent acts of cultural destruction and looting have reverberated around the world, similar practices have a long and fraught history. In the Middle East, they have been entwined with colonialism, empire building, and nationalism. They have also intersected with the mass extermination of civilian populations by their own states—ethnic cleansing, massacre, and genocide. These episodes still cast a long shadow, not only in the Middle East but beyond, in the diasporas where children of refugees seek to remake their communities. The repercussions of assaults on cultural heritage endure in the struggles for the restitution, repatriation, and reunification of art or sacred objects with their communities or countries of origin. We not only have to come to terms with the immediate implications of the destruction of heritage that we witness in our own time, but we also have to grapple with the long-term consequences of the destruction of culture and its many afterlives. Moreover, we need to understand how the experience of looting or destruction shapes the object itself, and its role in the social world.

Accounts of the destruction of art or the restitution of cultural heritage often highlight the zealous breakers of images, opportunistic looters, daring thieves, clever accountants, courageous archeologists, dedicated journalists, honest policemen, resilient librarians, undaunted art historians, acquisitive collectors, careful curators, uncaring oligarchs, and heroic lawyers. They prompt questions such as: Who owns or should own antiquities? When is art unlawfully taken, and when should it be restituted? How should museums ethically build collections? What best serves the public good without infringing on rights?

These questions all deserve answers. Yet they leave much of the object’s story untold. A treasured artwork, the image of a deity, or a holy book is a material entity launched into a web of social relationships. The story of a trafficked object and of its people shows us at eye level the experience of art, which legal notions and treaties about the human right to culture seek to enshrine in law. It shows us how central art is to resilience and survival.