Culture in Ruins

Curator's Note

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." Guy Debord, 1967

Reporting against the backdrop of war-torn museums and archaeological sites has given the coverage of widespread political upheaval a distinctly cultural flavor – a spectacle artfully staged to exploit the tangible destruction of “civilization” that makes routine damage reports in ongoing conflicts all the more salacious.

Ancient ruins are viewed as cultural tethers to civilization. In the Middle East and Africa these cultural heritage sites are under attack directly or indirectly in the wake of civil war and revolution. Their struggle for survival is being broadcast in a variety of mediums as a spectacle of horror that affects all societies.

UNESCO brings global awareness to the dangers facing many of these protected World Heritage Sites. They connect to other preservation organizations like National Geographic, who reported on the recent Cairo bombing, and the Archaeological Institute of America’s coverage, who did a retrospective on the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad.

Other organizations use technology to track destruction in remote/inaccessible areas. Live Science  provides satellite images of damage to archaeological sites like Tell Qarqur in Syria, and promotes awareness about dangers to the cultural heritage of Syria. Another issue is illegal looting and excavations under the cover of civil war.

Social media is also used to document the destruction of ancient sites. Pinterest has multiple boards examining world heritage in conflict zones, including areas under seize like Tombouctou, Syria, and Iraq. NATO’s Facebook page promotes videos documenting damage to cultural heritage as well, like this post on Libya. The Global Heritage Fund uses its Twitter feed to promote articles, photos, and interactive discussion about the world’s endangered sites. Syria’s civil war is a constant backdrop for stories on the destruction of world culture and the increasing concern about looting from museums and archaeological sites.  

Cultural destruction as spectacle raises the following questions:

  • How do ruins from antiquity inform cultural heritage claims in the countries of conflict, and the global community at large?
  • How does familiarity with and use of these sites/ruins as backdrop to engage the global community?
  • Does media coverage exploit the destruction of these heritage sites over the loss of human life?


Great post, Heather! The slide show, too, is filled with such great resources for people looking into these questions. I'm ruminating about your final question, which, to me, speaks to the tension between mourning cultural objects vs. mourning human life, and media coverage of both. To me, these are bound up together. I see the destruction of cultural icons as a metaphor or illustration for the destruction of a people, almost as if to say, "This faction was so ruthless, they obliterated all traces of the other faction." In cases where the objects being destroyed were created by now-extinct cultures, mourning the objects may be the only way of reminding us to also mourn the people.

Thanks for a really informative post, Heather. It got me thinking about the positioning of the cultures presented as threatened with destruction. Often the reports frame the culture being lost as already in the past: preserved in the museum rather than enacted in the bazaar. This in turn implies a lack of any living, modern culture in the region. It's as if everything of cultural significance in Syria happened two thousand years ago, or that we should mourn the looting of Iraq's national museum but not that of its contemporary culture. Is there a kind of Orientalism at work here, that reinforces ideas of the West as seat of the modern? Finally, reading your post it also occurs to me that many of the cultural treasures being mourned here themselves celebrate the destruction and/or subjugation of other cultures. So the spectacle of destruction works on two levels, across a huge historical span.

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