Slick Replica of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch Arrives in New York, Prompting Questions [UPDATED]

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s recreation of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in New York City (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Detail of the recreated arch (click to enlarge)
Detail of the recreated arch (click to enlarge)

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.

Musicians perform in front of the 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?”

Demonstrating the augmented reality app
Screenshots of the augmented reality app
Screenshots of the augmented reality app

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.

Protestor Robert Boatwright with his cross (click to enlarge)

“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?

The crowd watching the archs' unveiling
The crowd awaiting the archs’s unveiling

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.”

For her, a much more meaningful project resides only less than a mile away from the looming arch, tucked in the display window of the diminutive Mmuseumm. Handmade from wood, paper, and other simple material by the Syrian youth Mohammed Qutaish, “Future Aleppo” (2015) is a portion of a much larger miniature model of the Syrian city. Originally built when he was 14, much of it was unfortunately destroyed in the war. Qutaish hopes to be an architect one day, and his brightly painted buildings are surrounded by trees, feature solar panels, and boast luxurious touches, including rooftop swimming pools. It may not appear in as grand a setting as the replica arch — but Qutaish’s city does not rely on the power of size to reward viewing. Like the arch, it looks towards a modern future, but that future is one that captures his singular dreams for his home. It is an imagined reconstruction that holds a special kind of pride for a city: one filled with faith in eventual renewal, and at its heart, a pledge to better the lives of those living there.
Detail of the reconstructed Palmyra arch
Detail of the reconstructed Palmyra arch
The reconstructed Palmyra arch in City Hall Park

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.

A pageant girl poses beneath the arch (photo by Karen Holmberg)

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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