Art And Culture

World Museums Join to Combat Destruction of Antiquities

The Lion of al-Lat in Palmyra, Syria, was destroyed by the militant extremist group IS.
The Lion of al-Lat in Palmyra, Syria, was destroyed by the militant extremist group IS.

Henry Cole, the founding director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, issued a convention promoting the reproduction of works of art “for the benefit of museums of all countries,” in 1867. Among the 15 signatories were the Tsesarevich of Russia, crown princes of Denmark and Prussia, prince royals of Italy and Saxony, and assorted dukes, archdukes, and counts. 

Embracing the technology of his day, Cole advocated the use of plaster casts, electrotypes, and photograms to record and copy artifacts in their collections, and share knowledge across national borders. The decorative art museum’s two courts filled with Victorian-era casts, including Trajan’s Column in Rome, are still among its most impressive spaces.

There were fewer crowned heads around the table at the V&A last week for the launch, on December 8, of a new, updated version of Cole’s declaration. Dubbed ReACH - for the Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage - the founding signatories to the declaration represented 19 leading cultural institutions from around the world, among them the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Artnet News reported.

In the spirit of international cooperation, the wording of the declaration was developed through a series of roundtable discussions held over the past year in Paris, Washington DC, Saint Petersburg, London, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing.

While Cole’s knowledge-sharing imperative remained in place, the world has moved on in the past century and a half. New digital technologies allow non-invasive recording and reproduction of objects either as physical 3D models or images. But the age-old threats of ageing, conflict and opportunistic (practical, political, and museological) looting remain. These threats are now joined by the destructive forces of pollution, mass tourism and acts of iconoclastic terrorists.

A number of recent displays by ReACH’s partner organizations suggest other ways in which museums might meaningfully use reproductions.

  Under Threat 

‘Sites Éternels’, a show last year at the Grand Palais in Paris, offered detailed immersive visualizations of monuments that have been damaged or are under threat, among them the Lion of al-Lat, an ancient statue, the Umayyad Mosque, and Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader castle, all in Syria.

The multimedia display was pieced together from meticulous drone footage shot on site by ICONEM, an organization dedicated to producing digital records of imperiled sites. Speaking at the V&A, Khalila Hassouna of ICONEM said that Sites Éternels, which had no physical exhibits in the traditional sense, received 59,000 visitors in three weeks, almost a quarter of them first time visitors to the Grand Palais.

The field of high-tech reproductions is not without its issues. The distinction between reproduction and fake is but a matter of certification: technical advances will improve the quality of both. Technology is fast evolving: maintaining, updating, and migrating digital records will be an imperative and potentially unwieldy task.

The ReACH declaration could signal a fundamental change in museum culture back to the days when casts and copies were valued more highly. Adam Lowe, the director of Factum Arte, which specializes in high-quality facsimiles, argued at the V&A launch for the distinction between the “original” and the “authentic.”

In 2007, Factum Arte created a meticulous reproduction of Veronese’s ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ (1563) for the painting’s original home: the refectory in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Looted by Napoleon’s troops 220 years ago, the original now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. While the original is now regularly obscured by hoards of tourists taking selfies with the Mona Lisa, Lowe suggests the copy at San Giorgio Maggiore might perhaps deliver a more authentic experience of the work.

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