A Digital Afterlife for Destroyed Heritage

Project Mosul, as its name suggests, emerged as a digital extension of the Mosul Museum in Iraq, in part as a response to the permanent damage done to the museum and its artefacts in February 2015 by ISIS members. Project Mosul involves the ever increasing use of digital technology, following in the footsteps of similar projects such as the reconstruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, which were originally destroyed by the Taliban.

The brainchild of Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage PhD students Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent, the project aims to reconstruct what no longer is, by applying archaeological techniques to photographs taken by museum and site visitors. The 3D models are available publicly, free of charge, and volunteers can generate new content after registering to the website.

It is one of a handful of initiatives aimed at protesting loss through objects, which take numerous forms. One other notable example is the in-progress work ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’ by Iranian artist and activist Morehshin Allahyari who engages in thorough archival research, digitally recreates artefacts, and employs 3D printing. It is hoped that in the next few months these 3D printable files will be archived and available online to download and be used by the public. A few visually striking examples have already been photographed and uploaded to the artist’s website, and several events and workshops are scheduled for 2016.

From our perspective, as postgraduate archaeology students visiting the online gallery, Project Mosul’s approach is more curatorial than artistic. It embraces the model of a virtual museum created ‘from below’ through crowdsourcing photographs, but also the 3D modeling, photogrammetry, and coding skills of those interested. Their partners are involved in software development and technical support, allowing the project to have access to the tools required for creating new items for its online collection, in addition to improving existing ones as new information pertaining to them is acquired.

This method has its limitations, especially in terms of the fidelity of the digital reproductions — and their authenticity, one may even say. Fortunately, the project does not claim to recreate exact copies, to be printed and used in lieu of the original. Rather, they complement traditional museums, and advocate for a better integration of digital techniques and virtual preservation into current collections.

In a candid interview with John Biggs of Tech Crunch, Matthew Vincent expresses his desire to send a “wake up call” to museums and shed light on issues of preservation, the drawbacks of not allowing photography, and the possibilities that digitization offers for both the present and the future. He hopes that, in due time, a virtual museum can come out of this, where artefacts will be located within a virtual environment to be explored by the visitor.

Visiting Project Mosul

Examining a reconstructed relief from Hatra, zooming closer to the damage on the Lion of Mosul’s hind legs, and rotating 3D models of sculptures, the online visitor is compelled to engage differently with the material world.

Visiting the 3D gallery

The images presented by Project Mosul are out of context, descriptions are minimal, and the reconstructions are incomplete. Yet, one feels drawn to them. Faced with the double absence of an object that is not only at a physical distance, as is the case with most online collections, but no longer exists at all in the material realm, we began asking questions that could not be answered.

How large is this archway in relation to my own height? Would the sun tint the frail edges of this statue red? Has the stone of this wall been made smooth by the passing of time? Would I have noticed this intricate carving if I had been walking past to the next glass case? Our presumption of the enduring permanence of curated objects was challenged through our virtual visit, as we attempted to grasp the materiality of absent artefacts through computer screens, rotating the hollow shells of a formerly tangible heritage.

Reconstruction created by user ruimx
Description of the artefact

There is a remarkable transparency in the way Project Mosul was built and continues to grow through crowdsourcing, breathing new digital life into memories of heritage sites and objects. “Images to Sort: 2455”, indicates the front page of the project as of February 20, 2016. The raw data sets — that is, for the most part, tourist photos — are publicly available, introducing yet another form of engagement. This one is more personal, giving the virtual visitor a glimpse of a moment that the creator of the image felt the need to immortalize, cherish, and subsequently put out into the world so that 3D modeling may be possible.

While the Middle East remains the most well documented area on Project Mosul, it must be noted that it does not limit itself to one geographical area, but rather emphasizes the idea of vanishing or missing heritage on a global scale. The simple, yet powerful interactive map provided by Google enabled us, as visitors, to visualize the geographical contexts of those objects and built structures, in the absence of their now former immediate context.

Map of destroyed or vanishing heritage

We believe that the links between artefacts, memories, museums, and landscapes of conflict, destruction, and loss woven by Project Mosul are not meant to mirror those of curated museum collections. Continuously growing and fundamentally incomplete, they serve another purpose; one that builds on empathic communities and crowdsourced efforts, aiming to digitally restore archaeological loss, piece by piece and memory by memory.

Destruction and Reconstructions

At its most basic level, Project Mosul can be conceptualised as a resource for the management of vanished or at-risk heritage. It does not discriminate between the aftermaths of iconoclasms, military actions, and natural disasters, instead focusing on the ultimate aim of the project: creating digital versions of the visual records the global community kept, employing the means available to the discipline of archaeology.

There are obvious issues in terms of accuracy. Can photos that do not meet the requirements of photogrammetry, yet nonetheless employ this technique, truly represent artefacts? Can we call it a reconstruction if it is incomplete and erroneous in some ways, not having been subjected to the hundreds of photographs, the lighting control, and the scales photogrammetry demands? To begin reflecting on these issues, we may want to rid ourselves of the desire for absolute accuracy, and turn to the human dimension of destruction.

The digital reconstruction is a new entity in itself, entrenched in activism for Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari, whose work we mentioned earlier in this piece. “The copy is actually making it more and more powerful every time you have a new 3D print of it,” she declares, speaking of the artefact that has been destroyed and lives on as a memory. The more saturated the online and offline world becomes with these reconstructions, the more they resist the removal of history.

City University of New York professor Alexander A. Bauer expresses similar concerns regarding the political and legal implications of the recent destructive acts of ISIS, and warns the professional community to not retreat into Western archaeology’s tendencies to remove objects from their country of origin on the ground that only the West can offer them the safety they deserve. Most significant, he calls for a greater awareness of what is at stake in conflict zones: “The destruction of antiquities cannot be compared with the destruction of human lives caused by the wars in Iraq and Syria” (Bauer 2015, 2).

Others have also criticised the involvement of professionals in removing heritage from its context, highlighting the “military-archaeological complex” of Western nations using heritage as justification to their invasion of an area: “Most archaeologists involved [in the rescuing of heritage] have projected a professionalized, apolitical and abstract response, devoid of the social and political context” (Hamilakis 2009, 39). It is clear that what is needed is an approach that keeps in perspective the livelihoods of the people most strongly affected.

What, then, can initiatives such as Project Mosul accomplish on a human level? Some have argued that the safeguarding of heritage goes hand-in-hand with the protection of communities in conflict zones (see Drazewska 2015), as much of identity is grounded into the landscape. When asked about why he took up the project, co-founder Matthew Vincent revealed that he worked in Jordan for over a decade, and that seeing videos of the destruction in Mosul hit too close to home. Vincent thus felt compelled to find ways to restore one of the key aspects of heritage: visual representation.

There is no recreating what has been destroyed, as their destruction has now become a part of these artefacts’ life histories. That is not to say we cannot remember, reconstruct, and mend, in the form of archaeological initiatives to preserve history, perform artistic acts of resistance to forceful loss, and channel crowdsourced displays of empathy.

Authors: Geneviève Godin, Valeria Cambule, Charlotte Jenkins, Ben Culpin, Alexander Mitchell, Nadine Loach

Al-Salhy, S. (2015) ‘The full story behind ISIL’s takeover of Mosul Museum’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/03/full-story-isil-takeover-mosul-museum-150309053022129.html. Page consulted 20 February 2016.

Bauer, A. A. (2015) ‘Editorial: The Destruction of Heritage in Syria and Iraq and Its Implications’, International Journal of Cultural Property 22(1): 1–6.

Biggs, J. (2015) ‘A Chat With Project Mosul About Rebuilding A Ruined History’, http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/18/a-chat-with-project-mosul-about-rebuilding-a-ruined-history/. Page consulted 20 February 2016.

Biggs, J. (2015) ‘Project Mosul Aims to Resurrect The Artifacts Destroyed by ISIS’, http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/17/project-mosul-aims-to-resurrect-the-artifacts-destroyed-by-isis/. Page consulted 20 February 2016.

Drazewska, B. (2015) ‘The Human Dimension of the Protection of Cultural Heritage from Destruction during Armed Conflicts’, International Journal of Cultural Property 22(2): 205–228.

Hamilakis, Y. (2009) ‘The “War on Terror” and the Military-Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics and Neo-Colonialism’, Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(1): 39–65.

Project Mosul (2015) http://projectmosul.org/. Page consulted 20 February 2016.