With the release of their latest propaganda video featuring an apparent destruction of the Mosul Museum, ISIS got the art world fumed. ARTINFO's Mostafa Heddaya explains why western cultural institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, should be more careful in their analysis of terror propaganda.
Brooke: A video released by the ISIS press office last week featured militants pulverizing ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq.
Anchor: A religious spokesperson for the group condemned the treasures as sacrilegious. These idols and pagans for people in the past centuries were worshiped instead of Allah, he said. When Allah ordered to destroy and remove them, it was an easy matter. We don't care even if it cost billions of dollars.
Brooke: Instead of orange jumpsuits and machetes, the perpetrators used sledgehammers and drills, but the relatively austere video still stoked global outrage.
Nightmare at the museum. ISIL fighters destroy centuries old statues in Mosul
We’re now seeing shocking images of ISIS members laying waste to priceless artifacts in the very cradle of our civilization.
They’re out destroying all civilization, they're barbarians! They’re nuts!
Brooke: The coverage of the wasting of the Mosul Museum evoked mournful memories of the obliteration of other priceless relics by terrorists in recent years:
ABC: In Afghanistan beautiful historic Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban and in Iraq, the gardens of Babylon were looted and art from the cradle of civilization kept at the Baghdad Museum stolen and vandalized.
Brooke: The Baghdad Museum, pillaged after the 2003 American invasion, reopened last week in response to the video of the apparent ruination of the artifacts in Mosul. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi:
Al-Abadi: Today we are opening this museum, Baghdad Museum, to send a message. We will safeguard this heritage.
Brooke: The ISIS video also hit a nerve with American cultural institutions. Tom Campbell of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, voiced the rage of many when he wrote, “Such wanton brutality must stop, before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated”
But hold on - experts took a closer look and found that, actually, many (though not all) of the Mosul Museum artifacts were plaster fakes, the originals having been carted away in anticipation of such vandalism. Mostafa Heddaya is a senior writer for ArtInfo.com. He said that the reverberating anger of the West probably does more harm than good.
Heddaya: Initially the concern was that everything pictured was authentic, and everything was destroyed. But it turned out that a great number of the statuary had been transferred to the museum in Baghdad prior to ISIS getting there. And we also know that a component of the statuary and some of the Assyrian reliefs were in fact replicas.
Brooke: The experts took a closer look at the video and determined they were plaster because of the way shattered?
Heddaya: Yes, and also based on background information. In a few different points you can see re-bar sticking out of the statues. That isn't to say that that necessarily means that they're fake but you can pause the video and look at the stills there's a sort of chalky white cross section and its very apparent that its plaster.
Brooke: Most ISIS propaganda videos seem designed to provoke fear. This one seemed designed to make us mad. How and why, do you think?
Heddaya: When we talk about cultural patrimony, which is already a loaded term, there's a sense of collective ownership. So when you look at, for example, the statement that was released by Tom Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was saying that "we must stop this wanton brutality before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated." While there's absolutely no reason to take lightly the destruction of any sort of antiquities, we should be sort of careful about what we're talking about - and what the scope of the risk is. If we can sort of pivot to the horrible beheading videos, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the media about the way that those are received and circulated. And its not so much about taking the threat seriously.
Brooke: Its about giving ISIS oxygen?
Brooke: When it comes to the beheadings, the media backlash begins immediately. You don't show the images, you don't feed the animal. Statements from art research institutions parrot unverified reports and they're not called to account.
Heddaya: Precisely. I want to emphasize that the academic community has been very careful in sort of trying to figure out what was destroyed in Mosul. The University of Chicago maintains a great listserv that has a number of specialists that follow up on these details. And its still emerging, what was lost and what wasn't.
Brooke: You said that this latest incident mirrors the reports of looting at the Baghdad museum in the 2003 aftermath of the American invasion. The AP and NPR estimated that maybe 170,000 items had been lost. The number turned out to be closer to 15,000. And roughly a third of those have since been recovered. You think that damage was done then - when reporters rushed to judgement. So if we exaggerate the destruction, what are we harming. Where does the damage come in.
Heddaya: The damage comes in in this perception of there being a wholesale evacuation of a natural culture. Because there is this visceral connection to the past that is embodied in these objects. Its part of a national mythology.
Brooke: So you believe that the media and the art world inflated the hysteria around this video. Why do you think?
Heddaya: I think you have a double acceleration in the art world. And in the media. Both fields that deal with images operating at a very visceral level. Where both the art world and the media were handed this video that seemed perfectly attuned to provoke the sensibilities that this is kind of the most excessive symbolic violence that you could perpetrate against the civilization.
Brooke: Which was why ISIS created the video.
Brooke: But the practical arm of ISIS would never destroy them because they're worth too much, right? How much are they worth?
Heddaya: ISIS has trafficked in antiquities from Syria and Iraq to the tune of millions of dollars. And it is a major source of their revenue. There are two bills coming before the house of representatives that deal with the question of stemming antiquities trafficking connected to ISIS.
Brooke: Because some of these artifacts have ended up in the United States. Who's buying them?
Heddaya: A lot of these looted antiquities are quietly shipped away throughout the world and delivered to the west. There has been a great deal of backlash. In September 2014, John Kerry held a press conference also at the Metropolitan museum to announce a Syrian red list of cultural artifacts and the idea was to circulate images to customs officials.
Brooke: I think of those Bamiyan statues that were destroyed by the Taliban years ago. The image was so powerful and so painful even though I personally have no direct link to that culture. And I just wonder why?
Heddaya: This is part of the whole logic of terrorism, which is to strike at the things we hold most emotionally dear.
Brooke: I didn't even know about those statues until they were blown up. But it feels like they're saying, We have the ability not only to kill you now, but to kill your past.
Heddaya: In a sense, dynamiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan was a gesture of refusal of a common ground. Its sort of the easiest way to say that my value system is radically different from yours. Because everyone kills. But not everyone destroys antiquities.
Brooke: Not everyone wants to obliterate the past.
Heddaya: There are countless books and countless conversational threads that begin with why and how that past is constructed - placing it into context. And whether we correctly fetishize it - because of course while we were very worried about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a year prior, the Bush administration approved the Yucca mountain nuclear waste repository. And that was a clear situation of native american cultural heritage being grossly disrespected. And nobody at the Met was issuing any statements about that as far as I know. So what counts as cultural heritage and what doesn't, even though it feels emotional and visceral and basic, to have a sensitive understanding of cultural heritage entails being aware of what counts as patrimony and what doesn't.
Brooke: If you assume it counts, first of all you have to know what happened, right?
Heddaya: Mmm hmm.
Brooke: And then you don't reward those doing the destruction with the very thing that they want, which is lots of ink and airtime.
Heddaya: Exactly. The reason that video was released has a lot to do with the fact that they know there is this great previous case study of the Buddhas of Bamiyan with the Taliban, there's a very concrete awareness of the symbolic value of something like this in the press and in the museum community and among the public. Its correct to be alarmed by it, but that alarm should be put into context once we react to the initial reports.
Brooke: Mostafa thank you very much.
Heddaya: Thank you for having me.
Brooke: Mostafa Heddaya is a senior staff writer at ARTINFO.com