creative Review

Should museums be recreating the past?

Piers Secunda was featured in this article by Creative Review:

Should we be able to 3D print our own copies of historical artefacts? Hi-res scanning and 3D printing are making it possible to recreate ancient objects and monuments but, as Mark Sinclair reveals, such techniques are not without their detractors?

Artistic responses to war and suffering are as old as human conflict. From plays to paintings, films to poetry, creativity has always emerged from destructive acts – much of the art made in the first half of the 20th century is testament to that. But how should we respond if the destruction targets culture itself? Is the instinct to repair and rebuild the right one?

Ironically, while Islamic State continues to erase significant parts of Middle Eastern heritage at an alarming rate – from bringing down ancient structures in Syria, to destroying mosques, shrines and temples in Iraq – we are also witnessing the deployment of digital technologies that have the potential to record these sites in unprecedented detail, to render them in three dimensions and to produce remarkable facsimiles. Over the last few years, a new era of preservation, conservation and recreation has emerged alongside renewed debate about the very act of remaking cultural artefacts.

When exhibition ‘The Missing: Rebuilding the Past’ opened at the Jessica Carlisle Gallery in London in April, the show brought together several examples of work by artists and scholars who, the gallery claimed, “resist the destruction of cultural heritage wrought by the so-called Islamic State”. The chosen mode of resistance was artistic production or, more accurately, reproduction. Objects on display included a 3D-printed scale model of the Triumphal Arch from Palmyra – the ancient site destroyed by Isis in 2015 – produced by the Million Image Database, and artist Piers Secunda’s replica of a Mesopotamian head strewn with bullet holes, themselves cast from a school building in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While an artistic reaction resulting in a new work of art is one thing, replicating an object or structure that has been destroyed – or copying it before it is lost – opens up many more questions. Archaeologists, technicians, artists and fabricators have found themselves at the forefront of the ascent of digital conservation, battling against violent ideologies on the one hand and environmental factors, from natural disasters and pollution to the effects of mass tourism, on the other. The likes of crowdsourcing, hi-res scanning, 3D rendering and photogrammetry are increasingly becoming part of the methodology of preserving culture in the 21st century.