In the last year alone, members of ISIS have destroyed hundreds of ancient artifacts in museums and heritage sites across Iraq and Syria. Last year, after gaining control of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, the terrorist group bombed the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, while in Iraq, militants took sledge hammers to statues in the Mosul Museum. With no way to recover the destroyed pieces–and no end to the destruction in sight–activists, historians and artists have looked toward emerging technologies to help reconstruct a destroyed past.
Morehshin Allahyari is one such artist. After seeing video of the destruction of the Mosul Museum last year, the San Francisco-based artist began an ongoing project to reconstruct the museum’s destroyed artifacts. A year into the project, Material Speculation: ISIS comprises nine 3-D printed objects, each rendered in a ghostly translucent resin and housing a memory card sealed in its center. Three of the objects are shown on her website, and the other six will be revealed for the first time in her February solo show in Toronto.
To design the objects, Allahyari worked with former staff members of the museum and researched online, but finding enough information to recreate the artworks proved to be a painstaking process. Much of the information was inconsistent from Arabic to English, and finding trustworthy resources was a challenge. “Thirty years of war in Iraq has made it hard for a museum that is underfunded and understaffed to document in an accurate way,” says Allahyari. She created her first object, a one-foot-tall representation of the museum’s King Uthal statue, by painstakingly piecing together images, videos, text, and email conversations–all of which she loaded onto the flash drive that lives inside the King’s stomach.
Allahyari says that in recent months, archival information has become a lot easier to come by. Historians, activists, archeologists and other artists involved in similar preservation efforts–many of which involve digital imaging and 3-D printing–have been unearthing information about artifacts damaged or destroyed by ISIS and making them public. The Institute for Digital Archeology’s Million Image Database, which Co.Design wrote about earlier this month, is part of that effort. The open-source database compiles photos of destroyed artifacts with plans to eventually render to-scale 3-D replicas of some of them, like the recreations of the Temple of Bel that will be displayed London and New York City in March. Another example is archaeologist Conan Parsons’ Palmyra Photogrammetry, an in-progress digital 3-D model of a theater in Palmyra, which was damaged in the June bombings as well.
To 3-D print large and accurate recreations of destroyed artifacts like IDA and Parson’s are doing, you need 25 to 30 high quality images from different angles, which both projects are accomplishing through crowdsourcing. For Material Speculation: ISIS, Allahyari says, that’s simply not possible given the lack of information available for the Mosul Museum’s artifacts–unlike Palmyra, which was a popular outdoor tourist site and photo op. But recreation isn’t really the point; Allahyari’s project has never been about replacing these destroyed pieces. It’s more about making information about each piece accessible to anyone, and proving that this history cannot be so easily destroyed.
Case in point: on the bottom or the side of each of her pieces, Allahyari created a resin plug so that, with the help of a sharp object, anyone can pry open the statue, pull out the thumb drive and access all of the images, PDFs, emails, and videos she came across in her research. She calls it the “physical version of going viral.”
“There’s something really interesting about being able to have these files in a physical way. The whole relationship of being able to touch feels different than just having the digital files,” Allahyari says. “It’s also a way to resist this access being destroyed and history being forgotten. This renewal of history exciting to see. The more popular these things become, the more people save these digital file, the more printed and kept the more these artworks are known about.”
Material Speculation: ISIS will be on view at Trinity Square Video in Toronto from February 11 to March 19, 2016.