The destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS in Iraq raises the question again over the trade and conservation of ancient artifacts, including architecture. For decades now, we have understood that the colonial pillaging that enriched both our own and Europe’s museums was wrong, and that each culture should cherish and share its most beautiful and important artifacts in its own manner, and preferably at their original sites. The question has been whether we should keep collecting at all from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South and Central America—and, especially in reference to Native American artifacts, we should even return such “objects” as human remains so that they can be reburied. I am not sure how far we should go: There is an argument for keeping and expanding Western collections that the ability to know and understand many cultures at the same time is invaluable, but there is also the counterargument that we have no right to such objects.
The question of architectural elements is slightly different. Buildings and three-dimensional structures are designed on and for a site, and so separating them creates strange discordances. Seeing major parts of the Parthenon in the British Museum is patently absurd, and I believe these pieces should have been given back a long time ago. Similarly, the Babylonian and Assyrian temples you can visit in Berlin (in their most complete form), Paris, and New York are so out of place and scale as to make me cringe, even as I admire their beauty and revel at their ability to evoke, in their long friezes, a world that is no longer there. Nothing can compare to a trip to Borobudur, Indonesia, to climb the temple and follow the friezes as they were meant to be seen. Regardless of how few people might have that opportunity, seeing something in such a wrong place as those cited above just doesn’t make up for the falseness of the situation when we “reconstruct” parts of monumental structures elsewhere.
And yet most of the Acropolis is by now a facsimile, the originals stored in Bernard Tschumi, FAIA’s New Acropolis Museum at its base, in a building that is only saved from being anywhere by the fact that it was built over, and makes visible, other ruins. Put the Elgin Friezes out in the Athenian air, and that air would destroy them rather quickly. And, after the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bayiman by the Taliban in 2001, and now the desecration taking place in some of the oldest sites of civilization, our instinct might be to put what is left on container ships as soon as possible and get it to a place where we have the means to ensure their perservation—which would probably be one of the Arab Emirates.
That would still be wrong. I think we must face the hard facts that some things disappear, whether by choice, or by calamity, or by the slow workings of time. However horrible the loss, we will not make it better by transporting precious fragments to far-away places and alien situations. I would also suggest to our own museums that someday we must give these giant pieces back, and that at the meantime their display should make clear how out of place they are, rather than claiming their near-completion. We must support organizations like the World Monuments Fund, and all those that seek to preserve what is left of our global heritage, but we must not revert to our ways of alienation. To do otherwise would dishonor the very notion of architecture and its relation to place.