‘Look without looting’: the Imperial War Museum charts a history of destruction

Pickaxes, dynamite, anti-aircraft guns – the Taliban had tried everything to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas, which had towered for 15 centuries in a pair of niches cut into the mountains in northern Afghanistan. But, after days of assaults, the majestic statues still wouldn’t budge. “This work of destruction is not as simple as people might think,” lamented the Taliban’s information minister, Qudratullah Jamal in March 2001, midway through their frenzied campaign to erase the figures, which they had decreed to be blasphemous idols. “You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.”

After two weeks of botched bombardment, the Taliban leaders ordered anti-tank mines to be placed at the foot of the cliffs, to be detonated by falling debris from artillery fire, followed by having abseilers place explosives into holes drilled into the statues, which finally reduced the precious monuments to rubble.

An imposing image of one of the empty niches greets visitors to the Imperial War Museum in London, at the entrance to What Remains, a new exhibition that explores a hundred years of cultural heritage in the firing sights – and the highly charged debates around repair, reconstruction and restitution that always follow the devastation.

Almost two decades after the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, there is still no consensus about whether they should be rebuilt, or their ghostly shells left as a reminder of this dark chapter in the country’s history. One wealthy Chinese couple had an alternative idea. In 2015, tofu mogul turned world explorer Zhang Xinyu and his wife, Liang Hong, projected a holographic image of a buddha into one of the empty niches, and donated the $120,000 projector used to do so to the Afghan Ministry of Culture afterwards. It was a generous act, but it hasn’t proved particularly useful: Bamiyan has no mains electricity system, so the power-hungry contraption needs a diesel generator. It is rarely operated as a result. Local heritage officials, meanwhile, bemoan that the European archaeologists who had been working on the site took the keys with them when they left.

The Taliban’s attempt to obliterate anything that indicated civilisation pre-Islam is just one of the many chapters in this illuminating if depressing exhibition, which charts the extreme lengths we have gone to as a species to obliterate the physical traces of rival powers and competing ideologies.

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” proclaims a slogan on the wall, taken from a stone plaque outside the Afghan National Museum in Kabul (where the Taliban wrought further vandalism), the corollary being that a nation can just as easily be expunged by the deletion of its heritage. From the bombing of cathedrals in Coventry and Dresden, to the burning of books in Sarajevo, to the levelling of Homs, the exhibition shows how the strategic destruction and appropriation of cultural artefacts has always been at the heart of modern warfare. A second section looks at the responses, explaining how the process of documenting the destruction of the second world war laid the foundations for the work of Historic England (which co-curated the show), to more recent efforts by the likes of Google to digitise lost artefacts from crowdsourced images, including the Lion of Mosul, destroyed by Islamic State in 2015, and now 3D-printed in miniature in the exhibition.

One of the most haunting vitrines displays a photo album from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a Nazi task force dedicated to the systematic looting of cultural property, which catalogues the paintings confiscated from Jewish families in the 1940s. Above it hangs the puffed-up uniform of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy, a white jacket with gold brocading he designed himself. It is an appropriately bloated outfit for a man whose appetite for plundered art saw him acquire three new paintings a week at the height of the Nazi looting, to decorate his own sprawling home.

Almost 75 years later, the struggle to find and return the pillaged booty is still ongoing. The exhibition shows an image that Florence’s Uffizi Gallery displayed earlier this year, depicting a painting seized by Nazi troops in 1943 surrounded by banners saying “Stolen!” The campaign has paid off: just last week, the descendants of the German soldier who stole the work finally reached an agreement to return it.

From the Nazis and the Taliban to Isis’s more recent destruction of Palmyra, there is plenty on the bad guys, but not much space devoted to the more nuanced topic of the damage wrought by the supposed good guys, like the trail of vandalism left by coalition forces in Iraq. It would have been an interesting counterpoint to highlight the fact that, in 2003, US-led troops chose the site of Babylon as the location for their military base, building a depot and helipads on the ruins of the ancient city, renowned for its beauty and splendour a thousand years before Europe built anything comparable. Decorated bricks that formed the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate were gouged out of the walls, while 2,600-year-old pavements were crushed by military vehicles and vast amounts of earth, mixed with archaeological fragments, were dug up to fill thousands of sandbags. A damning British Museum report at the time described it as “tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain”.

The army captains could have done with a handy set of Archaeology Awareness playing cards, produced in 2007 by the US Department of Defense in collaboration with Colorado University, on display in an entertaining part of the exhibition about educating soldiers on the importance of cultural heritage. “Ancient sites matter to the local community,” says a caption on the Queen of Hearts card, beneath an image of some locals enjoying a site in Uruk, Iraq. “Showing respect wins hearts and minds.”

“LOOK WITHOUT LOOTING” was the more direct message given to British soldiers in the second world war, shown on a screen-printed poster alongside the informative “Art – Its Background”, an improving wall-chart that introduced young recruits to the finer points of El Greco and Van Gogh.

As Donald Trump prepares to blunder into an accidental war with Iran, threatening to “obliterate” the country in a recent tirade of tweets, his military aides might do well to familiarise themselves with the ancient cradle of civilisation that produced the wonders of Persepolis, the exquisitely tiled mosques of Isfahan, the mud-walled mansions of Kashan, and the ornate gardens of Shiraz – before all we have is digitally crowdsourced replicas of them.