A replica of Palmyra’s ancient Arch of Triumph, built by Romans and destroyed last year by ISIS militants, is on a world tour. The scaled-down copy, a project by the UK-based Institute for Digital Archaeology, made its New York City debut yesterday morning following its initial unveiling in London by Boris Johnson at a packed, fanfare-filled ceremony. Its introduction on American soil at the center of City Hall Park was an equally official but less crowded affair, attended mostly by an invited group of two dozen guests in suits who watched from their reserved seating (among them, government officials of the United Arab Emirates). They just outnumbered the gathering of reporters, who, though confined behind barriers, still received a better view of the arch than any members of the general public, who had to remain behind yet another row of barriers. A trio of musicians played an array of Syrian compositions while everyone witnessed the grand, suspenseful reveal: the arch was hidden beneath a translucent plastic covering, as if its appearance is a mystery, and organizers removed it with flourish. Selfies were quick to occur, but many people remained baffled about why exactly a copy of a 1,800-year-old arch from Western Asia was standing in downtown Manhattan, where it will remain until September 23.
One such individual was Jake Stavis, a graduate student in Columbia’s art history and archaeology department who visited the park with the intention of seeing the arch. “We’re here, but we’re all a little confused,” he told Hyperallergic. “You can gain something from the experience of walking through a Triumphal arch, but there isn’t a lot of didactic material surrounding this. I’m still a little lost, not having the context of how this relates to the conservation of cultural heritage.
“The whole thing felt, ironically, a little exclusionary, given this whole narrative about how they’re trying to bring people together.”
For those unfamiliar with this project to replicate and display the lost original, a primer: it is intended as, “first and foremost, an act of solidarity with the people of Syria and the hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their home,” as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said at a podium yesterday. “But it’s also an expression of our shared history and humanity that transcends borders and nations. It’s an act of defiance, an act of saying we do not stand for terrorism. We will continue to prevail.”
The Institute’s first monumental 3D reconstruction of an ancient site, the triumphal arch grew out of its Million Image Database, a crowdsourced endeavor to collect 3D images of threatened objects, particularly those in conflict zones. Those images helped create a virtual model that computer-assisted carving bots in Italy then reproduced to create a true-to-form replica. Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums has heralded these efforts, which reportedly cost over $100,000, as a model for how we may “restore the site [of Palmyra] as a message of peace against terrorism.”
The rainy afternoon may explain the small turnout, which was a mix of people who happened to be walking through the area and art-world academics like Stavis who knew of the New York unveiling. Some passersby simply took photographs and left; more curious others asked those around them for information, such as Pete Webb, a marketing associate who chanced upon the arch while getting lunch and was quick to describe the endeavor as “wonderful.”
“Anything that can bring awareness and bring people together, that honors our past and looks towards the future — I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think if it sparks a discussion, that’s a step in the right direction.” The discussion the arch has largely sparked, however, is whether the replica is really executed in good taste and what message it conveys, if any.
“There’s such an uncomfortable line that’s been tread with this, in bringing fetishized, tourist-worthy objects out of the country when the living people are a more important priority,” archaeologist Karen Holmberg, a visiting scholar at New York University, told Hyperallergic. “And it’s not simply about bringing a beautiful thing here intact. It’s the data and the context that gets completely lost. And it’s the warfare itself and the violence itself that is the core issue.”
Holmberg, who had heard of the arch when it arrived in London, is among many whose first impression was surprise at the work’s small size. At City Hall Park, it appears particularly diminutive and out of place against the backdrop of skyscrapers; but like the monumental one standing in Washington Square Park, it comes across here as a visually appealing, architectural feat — specifically, one that simply celebrates the possibilities of rapidly developing technological advances. There are no plaques describing what it represents or even labeling it; no signs or pamphlets for visitors to read anything about Palmyra or even the destructive event that led to the replica’s creation. Not even in the event’s opening remarks, which lasted less than ten minutes, did Glen nor Roger Michel, the Institute’s executive director, provide any substantive background on the destroyed arch.
“We’re here today to celebrate hope, to celebrate how technology gives us hope for the future, and a visual representation of a civilization that has been lost to us, that we hope for generations to come will be remembered,” Glen said. Michel instead spoke in length about the legacy of Palmyra in relation to New York City:
Palmyra, like New York City, was this amazing crossroads where people from all around the region collected there to live but also to bring their unique talents to bear on the communal enterprise of making that city great. It’s funny because New York has thrived in exactly the same ways as Palmyra — as a center of commerce, of art, of technology, of learning. Everything about Palmyra that was great is what is great about New York City. So it’s a moment for New Yorkers to reflect on their connection both to other places around the world but also their role in the arch of history throughout our time.
His words closely echo the view of the 18th-century scholar Robert Wood, who, as Hyperallergic contributor Michael Press writes, saw Great Britain then as a modern Palmyra. “How differently do we view Palmyra today?” Press asked. “When we ignore threats to heritage in other parts of the world, while obsessing over the ruins of Palmyra; when we call for intervention to save the ruins without once mentioning the human victims of the war…when we proclaim that the legacy of Palmyra is all around us, in the West, in the form of neoclassical architecture, what are we doing but staking a claim to our inheritance?”
What the park display did make clear was that the occasion presents an opportunity to show off technology. The only on-site supplement to the arch was an mobile, augmented reality experience by The Arc/kProject, which invites you to download an app and scan specially designed tiles dedicated to the arch, the Temple of Bel, and Palmyra’s amphitheater. A 3D rendering of each structure pops up on your screen, allowing you to toggle between a black background and “live view,” which layers the model over the real world. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what value lies in the ability to zoom in and out of or clumsily swivel around a tiny ruin against the backdrop of City Hall Park. For a brief moment, I was hopeful the app also offered a section of valuable educational information; but when I asked a developer if it did, he said no — people could just easily Google Palmyra’s history or read about it on its Wikipedia page.
The reduction of Palmyra’s spectacular triple arch into a cluster of programmed pixels you may manipulate on a handheld screen only made more bizarre the fact that multiple organizers referred to the replica repeatedly as “the object.” In promoting the arch, the Institute always emphasizes its materiality — it’s made of Egyptian marble from Michelangelo’s favorite quarries; it’s 25-feet-tall and weighs nearly 30,000 pounds. This is, in the end, something meant to visually stun, as its intended, isolated display suggests.
“What we wanted to do is keep it as a clean space, rather than resemble a museum installation,” Alexy Karenowska, the Institute’s Director of Technology, told Hyperallergic. “We want people to be able to appreciate the object and not have too much else going around the space.” The team, she said, did intend to have on-site information available, but the rain stalled plans; she promised that in the coming days, more information, likely in the form of a mobile app or website, will be accessible at the location. But how about visitors who do not own smartphones, much less a cell phone at all? The lack of readily available information was clearly problematic, as exemplified by the presence of a protestor who arrived shouldering a wooden cross. He still thought the structure was the entrance to the Temple of Bel — as the Institute had originally planned — and had read about it as a historic site of child sacrifice.
“Any tribute to anything affiliated with the Temple of Bel, to me, is at the very least in bad taste, at the worst, possibly a curse,” Robert Boatwright said. “Human babies were sacrificed to Bel. So I don’t really think that speaks to anything endearing to the human spirit.”
Off-site, the Institution has organized auxiliary events with the New York Public Library and the Grolier Club, but these, too, center on the capabilities of new technology — looking forward, mostly, rather than reflecting on the past. Last Saturday The Arc/k Project showcased a virtual reality experience of Palmyra; the New York Public Library will host an event and ongoing exhibitions that explore how emerging technologies may help “make architectural cultural heritage … more accessible” for the visually impaired.
Rebekah Newman, a graduate student at NYU in museum studies, said she is concerned about how such tools, particularly the ones involved in creating the arch, may affect authenticity and our relationship with cultural heritage. “I think the technology used could be an interesting and useful tool for restoration and conservation of cultural heritage,” she said. “But I think it could also be misused and end up in Disneyfication.”
As its increased integration in museums exemplifies, technology is a powerful tool to engage the public. The sheer visual power of the replica arch, at the very least, offers a prime opportunity to capture people’s attentions: the Institute has created a very public space where it could launch meaningful discussions on cultural heritage, the people of Syria, or Palmyra’s largely forgotten, post-classical history. If it is already offering people a scene that already causes them to pause from their daily routines, why not also use the moment to have them linger to learn or exchange ideas?
After the press conference, I searched for individuals to gauge public opinion — but whether because of the wet weather or because people simply lost interest, most of the bystanders had left, having spent more time waiting in front of a plastic-wrapped arch than actually observing the revealed, stony replica up close.
“I think it’s difficult to have something so conflicted conveyed properly,” Holmberg said. “How do you place something as an object of the tourist gaze or the casual gaze — something that shouldn’t be thought of casually at all? In fact, it requires a lot of very difficult, thoughtful analysis.”
Update 9/21, 4:25 pm: Karen Holmberg returned to the arch today, where she spotted it being used as a backdrop for a pageant shoot.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s Triumphal Arch of Palmyra (31 Chambers St, Manhattan) is on view at City Hall Park through September 23.
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I love how the subject of the article and the article itself have a shared, intrinsic awkwardness. Even the photos are awkward: the musicians look uncomfortable, the perfect ‘crowd scene’ photo where the two guys in black are trying to figure out what’s going on, while the guy on the right with the cell phone looks like an undercover FBI agent calling in a strike, the photo of the protestor with a cross who came because he thought it was a different arch…you just can’t make up stuff like this. Even the arch looks uncomfortable. I will agree with one point – this is mildly interesting but when live human beings are being killed in a war most of us don’t understand, recreations of historical arches seem like a trivial exercise in navel-gazing. A conversation on the priorities of a civilized humanity would seem like a better exercise to me. When we have our priorities straight, then let’s build arches.
Thanks for the thoughtful article! Just a few clarifications: our website http://www.cityhallarch.org has a lot of information about the arch and there is a QR code on the arch that provides access to information, too. There is also an interpretive event in the park on Thursday at 6PM (full details on site) that will focus on the history of the arch and the philosophy underlying the exhibition (all topics also extensively addressed on our website). Finally, as you note, we also are hosting offsite interpretive events at the New York Public Library, including events for sight impaired visitors to complement our extensive AR exhibition. I do apologize for any confusion around the unveiling. The torrential rain impeded our setup as did the citywide manhunt for the bombing suspect. Indeed, we had been led to believe that the event might be postponed until about two hours before the unveiling. I am happy to say that all has been running smoothly since and I am quite proud of what my small team was able to accomplish under rather extraordinary adverse circumstances on Monday. As for people’s view of the content, I love lively debate! The arch has been featured in more than 3000 newspapers and magazines and so I have heard many viewpoints. I will only say that we built the arch at the request of Syrians, for Syrians and their views are what I care about the most. I am happy to say that we have had an incredibly enthusiastic response from the region and that, for me personally, has made it all worthwhile. Especially since the New York Times featured the arch this week, we have had a huge number of visitors, all of whom seem thrilled to learn about a place with whom they share so many affinities. I have not seen a single protestor or heard a single negative comment. I wish there was a way to send you some photos from today. (Tell me how!) It is always easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize. Rather than talk or philosophize, we have decided to take action. We are preserving a vast 3D record of endangered sites in our various online databases. We also offer a range of educational programs and exhibitions relating to cultural heritage. Finally, we provide reconstructions of damaged monuments at the request of local stakeholders. Our arch has made a lot of people happy. If folks have ideas for more constructive responses to the destruction of people’s cherished landmarks, please tell me; we are always ready to try something new! In the meantime, helping people see the connections between themselves and faraway cultures, places and times seems like a worthwhile endeavor. Stop by Thursday night and say hello! All the best, Roger Michel, IDA
That’s pretty neat!
But I am a little curious to hear your input on the arch being used for photo shoots. Isn’t that a little degrading to it’s true nature?
Hi Audie: Great to hear from you. In fact, that’s totally true to its nature. The arch was built on the public square in Palmyra to provide a place for celebrations Dr Abdulkarim was so thrilled to see the festive atmosphere around the arch in Trafalgar Square explaining to me how it brought the arch back to its true roots. We fetushize ancient sites in the West, imagining them all to be places for quiet and respectful contemplation. In fact, many of them were intended to be public gathering places where people celebrated community. As for the Syrian view of our reconstruction, as has been widely reported, the folks at the museum in Palmyra want it to be permanently installed there after folks around the world have had a chance to see it and think about their own connections to other places and times. If people are ever going to get along they need to see the good in others and celebrate our shared past. That seems to be the spirit the arch typically evokes among regional stakeholders. It is certainly the spirit in which it is offered. All the best, Roger
A small coda: all day long young couples have been coming out of City Hall after getting married and taking their wedding pics under the arch. Although it may baffle art history graduate students, people quickly develop an intuitive relationship to cultural heritage objects, including so-called reconstructions like the arch, making them new monuments in their own right. It is, for lack of a better word, the “Velveteen Rabbit” effect. In any event, it is wonderful to see people interact with the arch, listen to their questions and think about where they will take what they’ve seen and heard.
Ms. Voon, Ms. Holmberg and Mr. Stavis are completely missing the point. Roger Michel, with money out of his own pocket, is fighting the terrorism and the deliberate destruction of ancient monuments, with technology, intellect and hope. Yes, Ms. Holmberg, people’s lives are of the foremost importance, but bringing hope to those who have lost everything, is vitally important, as well.
My husband and I have become close to a young Syrian couple who escaped from Homs, in June. They were very despondent when they learned of the renewed bombing of Homs; they did not know if their parents had survived this latest bombardment. When I showed them the photograph of the Arch of Triumph, displayed in Trafalgar Square, tears streamed down their cheeks. A touchstone, from their life, a symbol, as it were, of their identity had been resurrected. Roger is bringing hope to a displaced people, who have lost everything.
ISIS and the Taliban may and do murder innocent people, and destroy precious monuments, and artifacts but the IDA honors those so savagely and indiscriminately murdered by resurrecting the symbols that bind us one to another; the thread of humanity which withstands time, from century to century. These monuments speak to us, from the ancient past, and give great comfort to those who have survived the murderous rampage of Islamist Jihadists who would like to destroy all memory of that past, which is our core sense of identity.
“it’s made of Egyptian marble from Michelangelo’s favorite quarries.” Excuse me? Michelangelo used marble from Egyptian quarries? This would come as news to Michelangelo, who always thought his marble came from Carrara, in northern Italy, and never visited Egypt, or anywhere outside Italy. And do you mean the original Palmyra arch, or the replica (which, if it’s the one shown in London, is 3-D printing, and not marble, as I recall). Please get your basic facts straight, at least.
Strange I was quoted as not knowing it was a different arch supposedly. Claire got the “affiliation” part correct in my statement which I used because the official rhetoric indicated it was a different arch. It was supposedly an arch into the Plaza area that led to the arch of the temple. Again, anything affiliated even loosely with child sacrifice does not speak to the better attributes of human kind. Though labeled a protester which I was, my primary reason for bringing the cross was to remind humanity of the love YHVH has for humanity which he exhibited by His sacrifice on the cross voluntarily for the remission of sin versus child sacrifice that Baal desired from his followers. Lord of Light in contrast to dark lord. I forgive you Claire for the misrepresentation of my awareness or lack thereof concerning Unesco’s, Dubai”s, and Digital Archeologies stated rhetoric concerning the arch. It would have been germain to mention the UN’s hypocrisy in their proven support of the Syrian rebels, made obvious, the same week, by the bombing of Syrian Government forces by the US. For the lesser informed ISIS is a rebel force in that conflict. In addition, the shirt I wore was protesting the nearly complete ignoring of the slaughter and rape of Christians in over 60 countries on a nearly daily basis.
This does not look like a Roman Triumphal Arch. Those arches always included bas reliefs of the plunder from whatever victory the arch was intended to celebrate. Take for example the Arch of Titus in Rome which commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem. The arch depicts the relics from the Second Temple, Jewish slaves and the like. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0b7da3e84d2dbabbba48db8c27a719cbeade77ddccdaa6804de85fac50251d95.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/87c4469b3d84f8a0317773ec7af482f4d2a074185dac4b8cd26650691599bf02.jpg
Considering how stunningly this installation has failed at inspiring the sentiment, “We have triumphed against terrorism and its goals with this amazing example of technology, intellect and hope”, one has to wonder if any of that really ever WAS its goal.
It’s very hard to imagine it was ever seriously intended as a symbol or rallying point against terrorism. At the concept level, it is fundamentally inadequate. It would never pass any ad team I’ve ever been on.
I agree with the protester – anything even remotely representative or reminiscent of an idolatrous, child-sacrificing religion has no place to be suggested as a symbol under which anyone should unite, and should have absolutely no place in any of our national public areas.
If the Tower of London, the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty were destroyed by terrorism and replicated in this manner, it would be an insult. I have difficulty seeing any good motive for this effort, and difficulty buying into the idea that anyone ought to see it as an important, worthwhile (though strangely diminutive) symbol of a “shared past” while magically dis-associating it from the utterly repulsive history of the site on which its original stood.
Wow. Sad to see so many supposedly educated people tying themselves into post-modern knots over this small event. The message was simple and clear to me: If the enemies of civilization choose to destroy, civilization will rebuild.
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