Art and Cultural Heritage Looting and Destruction

First Things First...

Almost daily there are reports of the destruction and looting of art and objects of cultural heritage of local, regional, national, and international significance, notably coming out of the Middle East, but also from many other places in the world. Popular books and movies, such as The Rape of Europa, The Monuments Men, and The Woman in Gold, have brought more attention to the subject, especially in regards to outrages perpetrated during World War II, while scholars, policy-makers, lawyers, conservationists, and forensic scientists are intimately involved in combating atrocities currently being committed. Cultural property crime is not, however, a new phenomenon, but a tactic employed over millennia across continents and against many different cultural groups for a variety of reasons.

The thematic subject of art and cultural heritage (looting and destruction) offers students the opportunity to engage with a potent subject that can elicit cultural empathy, to critically examine a historical and contemporary societal problem that affects their present and future, to examine their own attitudes and values, and to consider how art intersects with issues of power.

This session could either be used near the beginning of the course to engage students and get them thinking about “why art matters,” or it could come much later in the course, at which point it would make clear the relevance of ancient objects to contemporary ideology and provide a touchstone for looking back at many time periods presented throughout a survey course.

There will be a focus on three major themes, with a section for each:

  • Destruction/iconoclasm and the erasure of culture (due to ideology, neglect, or disregard for the object)
  • Looting and the appropriation of objects (for purposes of propaganda and economic gain)
  • Restitution, repatriation, reconstruction, and artistic interventions

Because of the complexity and often overlapping issues of looting and destruction, many examples will fit into more than one theme.

This lesson is intended to be completed in two one-hour-and-fifteen-minute sessions. While the lesson itself contains material for a much deeper discussion of these issues, instructors should feel free to choose the works, time periods, and geographical locations that fit most comfortably into their course.

Of particular importance to this lesson are issues of identity and contestation of power over objects of cultural heritage. Some questions that can be addressed by the lesson include: what objects have been held by various cultures and rulers as being imbued with power? Who has chosen to co-opt, usurp, or destroy particular works, and for what reasons? Who has obtained objects in the hopes of transferring a civilizing aura and promoting their cultural enrichment and status? What objects have been subject to iconoclasm, and why? What economic considerations might be present, and what are the ramifications of the sale of culturally significant objects? And, perhaps most importantly, when has the destruction of those objects been a harbinger of or a corollary to the destruction of an entire culture? Since the reverberations of historical and contemporary looting are felt in the present, it is also important to consider society’s ethical obligations and current debate over contested objects of cultural heritage.

One way to begin the class is with the following exercise:

If this session is scheduled early in the course, or you find that many students don’t have an understanding of or appreciation for a long view of history, you might ask them to write on a notecard the oldest building or monument they have personally encountered and then share it with the class. Having a local timeline, which might include the oldest building on campus or a local landmark, can serve as a good beginning point that most students have in common. From there, you can expand back in time to those who may have visited Philadelphia, Massachusetts, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Pyramids at Giza, or Stonehenge to get students thinking about and appreciating just how old some of the ancient works that have recently been destroyed are.

Background Readings

ISIS destroying ancient sculpture in the Mosul Museum, 2015.

While not necessary for teaching this lesson, some background readings from the books noted below will enrich your knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century issues of art and cultural heritage crimes during war. These are also books that students may enjoy and are appropriate to include in a recommended booklist.

  • Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures, with William Patrick (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).
  • Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heros, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, with Bret Witter (New York: Center Street, 2009).
  • Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
  • Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

Two short online readings for students:

In addition, you can suggest the following online resources to your students as valuable avenues for further research:

Content Suggestions

Dirck van Delen, Iconoclasts in Church (detail), after 1566.

Destruction and iconoclasm:

For starters, Khan Academy and AHTR both provide good background information on Assyrian art.

Destruction of the Mosul Museum

ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State, released this short clip on February 26, 2015. Information for you to consider when deciding to play this clip or to instead show photographs of ISIS in the Mosul Museum is that ISIS produced this video as part of its propagandistic agenda.

This provides a good moment to ask if anyone has seen this clip or photographs from it or anything similar recently. Can they explain what is happening? Do they know of any other instances of destruction that might fit this pattern? If they have been watching the news, they might have questions about the authenticity of the video or wonder if the sculptures were authentic or copies. The following links go through the video, discuss each of the works, and provide a good analysis separating those most likely to be copies from actual historical objects. About half of the Assyrian objects are thought to be copies of the originals that are currently housed in the Iraq Museum. The Hatra King statues and the lamassu were authentic. You may want to give your class these links an in-depth analysis of the destruction of the Hatrene and Assyrian sculpture at the Mosul Museum.

The human-headed winged beast or lamassu at the end of the clip showing the destruction of the Mosul Museum and Nergal Gate was among the few left in situ in Iraq. The lamassu were located across the river from Mosul, guarding the Palace of Sennacherib’s Nergal Gate (c. 700 BCE) for the past 2700 years in ancient Nineveh, once the world’s largest city. There are other lamassu that were removed from the country in the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the British Museum, and the Louvre. The most devastating losses from the Mosul Museum attack are the sculptures of the kings from Hatra since the majority of Hatrene work is still in Iraq, and the four destroyed here constitute roughly one-sixth of the known works. In addition, this period has been studied very little, and now we have lost much valuable information. Some artifacts that may have survived may be destined for the illicit antiquities market, because ISIS is funding many of their operations through such sales.

Prior to releasing the video of the atrocities committed in the Mosul Museum, ISIS had destroyed few sculptural artifacts. Most of the demolished architectural sites were Shia mosques or shrines and holy sites of the Yezidi but very little from the ancient world had yet been targeted. However, during March and April of 2015, ISIS rampaged through several ancient cities in the cradle of civilization: first, Nimrud, then on to Khorsabad, the medieval monastery of Mar Behnam, Hatra (third century BCE; a UNESCO World Heritage site). A mosque built over a church and dedicated to Yunus (Jonah), sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was demolished, and Palmyra (another former capital and World Heritage site) was also targeted.

The Destruction of Nimrud  

You might show the short video of ISIS at Ashurnasirpal II’s Palace in Nimrud in this National Geographic article to introduce the next section.

In what has been called one of the most egregious cases of deliberate destruction of cultural patrimony since WWII, ISIS members annihilated the physical history of Nimrud, one of the greatest cities of the ninth century BCE. They first attacked the gypsum reliefs depicting court life, where there were only about fifty reliefs left from the gigantic northwest palace of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BCE). English archaeologist A. H. Layard had removed most of them in the 1840s, and they were sent to England and later some went to institutions in the United States, including the Met. ISIS used bulldozers to tear down walls, then detonated barrel bombs. Four tombs only discovered in 1991 were destroyed, raising questions about what else remained that might have been found in the future.

The Met’s reconstruction of the palace gives some idea of the grand size, location, and color of the lamassu and reliefs.

Why are these sites being targeted? ISIS’s ideological claim for demolishing cultural heritage, especially sculpture, is toward the prohibition of idolatry. These iconoclastic, or image-breaking attacks by an extremist group go well beyond that, by deliberately targeting religious and cultural groups (past and present) that do or did not profess the same beliefs: an act of cultural cleansing. ISIS endeavors to erase a pre-Islamic past and any other belief system except its own to try and bring into being a world where, with no visual records or historical texts, the past is forgotten and only ISIS’s own interpretation of it exists. The group also brings attention to their cause, so they can recruit more members. The objects they loot, rather than destroy, are economic goods given even more value for their new scarcity in the market, where they can sell those objects to finance their extremist activity.

Referring to the cultural heritage of Iraq, UNESCO’s Director General declared in May 2015, “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime — it is used as a tactic of war, in a strategy of cultural cleansing that calls on us to review and renew the means by which we wish to respond and to defeat violent extremism.”

German’s State Minister Maria Böhmer went on in a UNESCO speech: “The attacks on the cultural heritage of Iraq are a test case for all of us. Iraq is a cradle of our common civilization…Its heritage has been entrusted to the care of all of mankind. The international community must do all it can to put an end to these war crimes.”The Iraqi ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim noted, “The destruction of cultural heritage aims to erase the multicultural history of Iraq that has been the hallmark of our country.”

The following links are good resources for current information about ISIS and the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq:

  • Ph.D. candidate Christopher Jones’s blog Gates of Nineveh is a good source of information with cogent explanations of recent events.
  • The American Schools of Oriental Research and the U.S. Department of State maintain the cooperative endeavor ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative, whose Resource Timeline gives brief abstracts of significant current articles.

Looting — the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, 2003

Looting destroys the integrity of the archaeological record. Recording all available information at a site of discovery is important, but so is keeping objects found together with each other to provide context. The discovery of the origins of writing and abstract numbers came about because archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat questioned what the purpose was of fired clay “tokens” were that appeared in museum collections. She connected them to other clay objects and eventually determined how humans began to write. If these objects with no discernable function to modern eyes had been left at a site, while other more desirable objects were stolen or otherwise removed, or if they were looted from a museum, important information would not be available for study that helps us to understand human history.

Part of Schmandt-Besserat’s research revolved around the Warka Vase (c. 3200–3000 BCE) in the Iraq Museum. The three-foot-tall, six-hundred-pound alabaster vase with four registers of relief carving is, according to Schmandt-Besserat, an indicator that art and writing were interconnected, and both advanced methods of communication. The Warka Vase stands as the earliest known example of pictorial narrative and expresses the ordering of Sumerian society.

The vase might not be around today if not for U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, because it and approximately 15,000 other objects were looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bogdanos noted that the museum was closed for over two decades during Saddam Hussein’s rule, ensuring that the community felt no connection to the institution or its collections. Key to Bogdanos’ success in securing, by some estimates, nearly 10,000 items, was his plan that included community outreach, international cooperation, raids, seizures, and amnesty for looters with no questions asked and no payments given. Granting amnesty was a powerful tool that encouraged local random looters of opportunity, as opposed to professional antiquities smugglers, to return the irreplaceable treasures. The irreplaceable Warka Vase, wrapped in a blanket, was brought in by three young men and handed to the museum guards in June of 2003. Tips from locals resulted in discovering another work, the Warka Mask, buried on a farm, and many other items were located this way. After being closed for twelve years for reconstruction and reinstallation of returned objects, the Iraq Museum reopened on February 28, 2015, earlier than planned, directly as a result of and as a symbol of opposition to ISIS’s destruction of the Mosul Museum and the cultural patrimony of the country’s and world’s citizens.

The Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas

If this lecture is scheduled toward the end of the term, you might refer back to Karen Shelby’s excellent AHTR segment on the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the lecture on Buddhist Art and Architecture Before 1200.

The Parthenon

The social evolution of cultures and its accompanying changes can also impact or even destroy monuments. After the advent of Christianity, the Pantheon and Parthenon temples were rededicated as Christian structures. Later, the Christian Hagia Sophia became an Islamic mosque; it is now a secular museum. The Parthenon became a church in the sixth century CE, was later a mosque, and was then converted into a munitions store under the Ottoman occupation as they readied themselves for the 1687 invasion. The building sustained major damage, including the loss of its roof, when the Venetians fired upon the structure during a siege against the Turks in 1687. More damage was sustained when the Venetians claimed the site and looted some sculptures while destroying others in the process. After the Venetians were repulsed in 1688, the Turks built a small mosque within the ruin. Lord Elgin received permission from the Ottoman Empire and removed more sculptures in 1801–2. Since then, the building has deteriorated further due to atmospheric pollution, recently undergoing a rigorous cleaning.

Other causes of destruction

Destruction to monuments of cultural heritage can also occur through natural disaster, such as the recent earthquakes in Nepal; by neglecting to care for structures, which accounted for thirty-five recent cases of missing monuments in India; or from a lack of knowledge or disregard for the historical nature of a site in favor of privileging other enterprises that may have a deleterious impact on a site. For example, in 2008 a large enterprise bought land to develop a commercial shopping center at the site of the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness in view of both Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia. However, through five years of legal battles and negotiations between interested parties, a compromise was reached, and the corporation donated the proposed site and decided to build in an alternative site nearby that will have no impact on the historic grounds.

Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire

An historical ideological debate about images that led to their widespread destruction was the Iconoclastic Controversy between 726–843 CE in the Byzantine Empire. At the heart of the argument was the concern that images of Christ and the saints might displease God, due to their potential to be misused as idols. This was not a mere theoretical debate but one that acknowledged the power of icons and the idea that being on the wrong side meant the entire empire might lose God’s favor.

Iconoclasts argued that the reproduction or copy of the image of either Christ or the saints was an idolatrous, pagan violation of the Bible’s Second Commandment, which prohibited graven images. Iconoclasts claimed that the Eucharist, through Transubstantiation, was the only true image of Christ, because it was (miraculously) the same material as the prototype (literally becoming the body of Christ, rather than wood, paint, ivory, etc.). Further, they claimed that images confused the two natures of Christ by limiting the limitless Godhead through adulteration with earthly material, thus separating his divine and uncircumscribable nature from his human, material nature. Iconodules, those who argued in favor of images, maintained that icons and images could teach the illiterate; aid in communication with Christ, because prayers ascend from the material world through the icon up to the immaterial Christ; and confirm the dual nature of Christ as human and divine in a manner analogous to the Incarnation.

With the exception of brief periods when two women with iconodule policies ruled Byzantium, images were destroyed in vast numbers during the Iconoclastic Controversy. Paintings and mosaics were whitewashed, others were chiseled away, and new, approved iconography, like crosses, were inserted, as in the apse mosaic in Saint Irene, Istanbul (c. 740 CE).

The Crucifixion and the Iconoclasts, folio 67r in the Chludov Psalter (c. 850–875 CE), created after the defeat of iconoclasm, shows the figure of the iconoclast Patriarch John VII the Grammarian, clad in red, whitewashing an icon.

Discuss with your students: how might the destruction of many images created prior to 726 CE and the change in types of images made during the eighth and ninth centuries impact our current understanding of Byzantium?

For more material on Byzantine art and Iconoclasm, see:

Iconoclasm and the Protestant Reformation in The Netherlands

Iconoclasm has not been confined to the Middle East, nor is it the province only of the Jewish or Islamic faiths or the Christian Byzantine Empire. Across Europe, including in the Netherlands and England, many Protestant reformers in the 1500s were not only concerned about the same abuses associated with imagery as the Byzantine Iconoclasts had been, but they were also appalled at the money spent on furnishing Catholic churches that could have gone instead to feeding and clothing the poor. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1562 both codified and disseminated the widely held belief that God did not want Christianity taught by “dumb images” but by the “lively preaching of His word.”

Another factor in the Iconoclastic Fury of the Netherlands — or Beeldenstorm (“storming of statues”) — of 1566 was that Protestants were generally forbidden to build churches, and most sermons were outdoor events preached near hedgerows outside of towns, similar to those shown in Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Younger’s The Preaching of St. John the Baptist. The pattern of the first major event of the revolt of August 10, 1566, was repeated throughout the southern and northern Netherlands when locals demanded a place to worship, which was followed by a sermon by the city gates, and then a surge into churches and cloisters to whitewash images, tear down altars and rood screens, smash sculptures and stained-glass windows, and remove church furnishing such as chalices and vestments as depicted in Frans Hogenberg and Dirck van Delen’s images of Iconoclasts in Church. While some of the incidents were spontaneous, in most cases they were organized. In some towns and cities the events were more moderate, and local officials called for the removal of objects that were then taken to city halls or other non-religious sites.

The border town between what would later be Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Flanders, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, serves as one example. On August 22, 1566, following a sermon, an iconoclastic outburst erupted, and men poured into the Cathedral of St. Jans (John), sang a psalm in front of the rood screen, and proceeded to smash the images. Soon, men came to close the church, and much of it was paradoxically saved as the group went on to ruthlessly savage the remaining churches and cloisters in town. Two days later, the first Protestant sermon was given in the newly purified Cathedral. Eventually, the Catholic Hapsburgs restored order and fortified the city, until it fell under a siege by the Prince of Orange in 1629, and Catholicism was banned.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam’s Cathedral of Saint John at ‘s-Hertogenbosch (1646) preparatory sketches suggest the complexities of the iconoclastic struggle. After the 1566 purge, a new rood screen was built (it currently resides in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London), which appears in one of the sketches of 1632. Saenredam visited the church only three years after it came under Protestant authority. Another sketch reveals the high altar bare of its original painting, God with Christ and The Virgin as Intercessors (1615) by Abraham Bloemaert, with a curtain covering the space. Saenredam likely never saw the original and instead inserted Bloemaert’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1612), then in the nearby convent, into his finished work. That change and the addition of liturgical objects (candles, flowers, crucifix), the two large black plaques on the walls dedicated to Phillip II of Spain and the regentess of the southern Netherlands Isabella, act to return the cathedral to a time prior to 1629 when it was still Catholic, perhaps in response to a demand from Saenredam’s now-unknown patron.

The town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was also home to Hieronymus Bosch, and during the iconoclastic outbreaks, many of his works in the town and in St. Jans (John) were destroyed, leaving us poorer for this gaping hole in his artistic body of work. Other artists suffered a similar fate, but perhaps the most egregious loss is that of many works by Pieter Aertsen. Our understanding of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Netherlandish art is today seriously compromised by iconoclastic practices.

Like the Taliban disingenuously claiming that they only destroy stone or mere materials, these Dutch iconoclasts at some level feared the power inherent in images. In the defacement of the Master of Alkmaar’s Seven Works of Mercy (1504), which suffered damage during the fury, one sees evidence of anxiety over that power. Recent restoration revealed that the work was strategically attacked with slashes on the eyes of the images of Catholic clerics. The assault suggests the equivalent of closing the eyes to the visual and damning what they might see, misunderstand, or be lead to do through “dumb” or silent images that did not directly explain their meaning.

Sèvres, Napoléonic Procession of Vatican Treasures to the Musée Napoléon (now the Louvre) (detail), c. 1810–3.

Looting and the appropriation of objects

While iconoclasts have destroyed images due to distrust or fear based around the idea that they are imbued with the power of what they depict, or because they are associated with a hated or repressive regime, other ideological stances have led people to take objects of material culture by force, stealth, or through suspect legal machinations,. The reasons for this are numerous. Some objects are seen as the spoils of war. Others are obtained to sell or trade for economic reasons. Some objects are thought to enhance the prestige of their owner. Certain persons and groups loot, appropriate, or destroy objects to perpetuate cultural genocide on other groups. However, the contestation of images is ultimately about power and control.

Legally, one key distinction used today to determine between a spoil of war and an object of cultural property that must be returned to its home country resides in the item’s usefulness. An invading army can take booty and weapons but may not seize cultural property or things that are not considered “useful” in legal terms. Cultural property taken during wartime must be repatriated. This concept of objects being “useful,” versus “autonomous” (as an art object) could be part of a class discussion on ethics and the law..

Looting in Ancient Rome

Looting of cultural objects has a history going back millennia, but the Romans were particularly avaricious. They plundered important heritage objects from other cultures that they subdued and assimilated, for example the Jews in Jerusalem. A sculptural panel on the Arch of Titus entitled The Spoils of the Temple of Jerusalem (81 CE) depicts the Triumph accorded to Vespasian and Titus in 71 CE upon their successful return from putting down the Jewish Revolt in 70 CE. The victors display sacred objects taken from the destroyed Second Temple, including the Menorah, the Table of the Shewbread, and the sacred trumpets that called the Jews to Rosh Hashanah. The placards in the background explain the spoils or the victories of the Roman army. The panel accords with the eyewitness account of the proceedings from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War. The moment carved for posterity keeps alive the collective memory of the day, celebrating the triumph and the deeds it honored. The looted spoils were kept in the Roman Temple of Peace near the arch; however, prizes that reminded Romans of the military victory simultaneously struck directly at the Jews who mourned the loss of the Temple and these most sacred and precious objects. The Menorah, Table, and Trumpets are long gone, but even today, almost 2000 years later, recent research that determined that the Menorah on the Arch of Titus was originally painted gold, verifying ancient accounts of the actual Menorah, is important news.  For information on the Arch of Titus digital restoration project see Dr. Steven Fine’s page at

Looting in Napoleon’s First French Empire

The Romans looted many sculptural works from Greece, in part to signify their military victories over the Greeks and to humiliate the defeated, but also to signal the privileged status and pleasure of owning such aesthetically appealing objects. The Romans set a precedent that the French would look to in the tumultuous years of the French Revolution (1789–99) but even more so during the Consulate and Empire of Napoléon Bonaparte (1804–15). Some artists suggested that, to improve the course of French art, they needed models, writing to Napoléon in 1796: “The Romans, once an uncultivated people, became civilized by transplanting to Rome the works of conquered Greece […] Thus the French people, naturally endowed with exquisite sensitivity will, by seeing the models from antiquity, train its feelings and its critical sense.” Contrary to this view was that of another fifty artists, who signed a petition stating that art should not be removed from the country of its patrimony or from those who had collected it.

During the Revolution, the Jacobins wanted to show that art belonged to the people and not to royalty, the aristocracy, or the church. The new Muséum Français in the Louvre, intentionally housed in the former palace of the king, was to make the most celebrated monuments and arts available to all. The opening date in August was on the Revolutionary day of celebration, the Fête de l’Unité, making it stand symbolically as the new nation’s creation for its people. The Directoire (French Revolutionary government, 1795–99) set the policy that military leaders, including Napoléon, should remove art from churches and collections in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands as they conquered territory. As the young general gained power, he continued this practice, and it became an important component of his military campaigns and forced peace treaties.

In his Italian campaign, Napoléon determined to “have everything that is beautiful in Italy.” To this end, he forced the Treaty of Tolentino onto the Pope, which stipulated, among other things, that the French Commission would select one hundred masterworks from the Vatican collections, five hundred manuscripts from their library, and, from the Papal States, the art treasures of Ravenna, Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona, Perugia, and Loreto. In Venice, French forces removed statues of the winged lion of Saint Mark and its four bronze horses. Soon the Commission, military leaders, and others were taking cultural and artistic objects from the collections of Roman citizens. A few of the more well-known works that were spirited away from Italy and destined for the Louvre included: Raphael’s Transfiguration, Madonna della Sedia, Portrait of Leo X, and a cartoon for the School of Athens, the ancient Capitoline Brutus sculpture, Correggio’s St. Jerome, Titian’s Crowning of Christ with Thorns, Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, and many works by early Italian painters, gems, decorative objects, pottery, and more.

The art from the Vatican was loaded on ships and taken over sea, canal, and land to its final journey, a triumphal public parade to the Altar of the Revolution in the Champ de Mars in Paris. The only unpacked crates were the four bronze horses (themselves looted by the Venetians from the Turks in Constantinople in the twelfth century, now destined for a triumphal arch in the Tuileries), but visual propaganda in the form of a Sèvres vase tells another even grander story.

The vase is part of a four-hundred-piece set, the Service de l’Empereur, which includes images of locations and events that celebrated Napoléon’s Imperial expansion into Italy, Germany, and Egypt. The volute krater shape was inspired by examples found in southern Italy of a type that Napoléon brought back from his campaigns in Italy and Germany. His possession of these ancient artifacts indicated his and his country’s military prowess and cultural connoisseurship. The stately frieze across its body shows the prized works on their travels from Italy to Paris. The Bust of Homer, Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön, and Medici Venus (taken from Florence) on their chariots in the triumphal parade are displayed to admiring men and women. The volutes in gold depict Pericles and Lorenzo de’ Medici on one side, and on the other are the emperors Augustus and Napoléon, who styled himself the new Augustus. The vessel’s shape and iconographic program work to convey a message of the glory and fitness of these ancient sculptures traveling through time and the hands of eminent collectors to triumphantly come to their final and rightful place in the Louvre. Dominique Vivant-Denon, the director of the Musée Napoléon who worked with Napoléon on the iconography and design of the service, suggested this when he stated, “today we are able to say to the arts that they are under the protection of the most powerful of nations and that the sanctuary where they are held is a Temple of Janus whose doors are closed for ever.” No more would there be war, and the objects now in Paris would remain — or so that was firmly believed.

Denon accompanied Napoléon on many of his campaigns or occasionally sent emissaries. His role was to seize works of art and manuscripts. He carefully planned and sent lists notifying Napoléon where works of art were and weren’t, and when it would be advisable to select some when he made a treaty with some local duke or baron. Denon’s commissary took sixty paintings from Berlin and Potsdam, 299 from Cassel, and 209 from Schwerin, also plundering Munich and Nuremberg. In Austria, Denon took 250 paintings from Vienna’s Belvedere alone, also gathering works from Salzburg. Napoléon’s brother Joseph was placed on the throne of Spain in 1808 and, at Denon’s request, he contributed many works seized from convents, cloisters, and churches. Not pleased with the quality, Denon made the journey to Spain to personally select 250 works, though when political fortunes worsened for Napoléon, the shipments were never sent to France. Nonetheless, the two men’s desire for cultural artifacts was insatiable. Denon’s objective was to have an encyclopedic collection of the masterpieces of Europe. He gathered sixteen works by Raphael in order to show the trajectory of his entire artistic career, and he planned to do this for all the periods and with as many significant artists as possible. Works that weren’t of the best quality were still taken, though they might be sent to provincial museums or to decorate royal apartments.

This massive collection of art formed the background for Napoléon’s marriage to Maria Louise of Austria in 1810. An eyewitness at the event recorded the clear symbolism of this setting for the nuptials: “…the Emperor advanced slowly through the bays of this gallery, which, with his sword, he had hung the masterpieces of the ages, and where, like trophies, the pictures recalled all of his greatest victories.” The gallery, in a sense, formed a picture of Napoléon. The emperor understood the totality of the collection in conveying the message. When Denon informed Napoléon that it would be impossible to move all the large paintings, including Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, in order to build a balcony to seat wedding guests in the three-week time frame he was given, Napoléon replied, “then burn it.” The power of art laid in the belief that whoever owned it owned all of the culture in the history of Europe, and the power that it took over the previous two-hundred years to commission and collect all these masterpieces were now, in the space of a few years, all brought together by one man — a symbolic consolidation of the power of men like Pericles, Augustus, Lorenzo de’ Medici to the figure of Napoléon.

For more resources about Napoleon and the Louvre see:

  • Gould, Cecil Hilton Monk, Trophy of conquest: the Musée Napoléon and the creation of the Louvre. London: Farber and Faber, 1965.
  • McClellan, Andrew. Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-century Paris. University of California Press, 1994.
  • Taylor, Francis Henry. The Taste of Angels: A History of Art Collecting from Ramses to Napoléon. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1948.

Looting and Destruction in the Third Reich

Napoléon’s disruption to the cultural patrimony of countries he invaded had important ramifications in the twentieth century. It not only set a precedent and served as an example for looting and controlling visual art as part of the strategy for empire-building but also played a role in Hitler and the Nazi party’s agenda to retrieve works that had not been repatriated to Germany.

This is addressed in the 2006 film The Rape of Europa, available online through Hulu.

At the end of this lecture, I have included three possible assignments for The Rape of Europa. One is a response paper, another a summary exercise, and the third uses the Rape of Europa summary as a building block for an assignment on issues in contemporary cultural property destruction.

If you choose not to assign the full film, viewing the first five minutes of it in class provides a good introduction and brief overview to the subject. Watching the next few minutes would expand the session to include a brief introduction to some of the repatriation issues of Gustave Klimt’s Woman in Gold: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Nine weeks after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, his director of the so-called Combat League for German Culture gave a speech explaining the new regime’s cultural theories: “It is a mistake to think that the national revolution is only political and economic. It is above all cultural.” Formed in 1929, the Combat League’s objective was to “enlighten the German race about the connections between race, art and knowledge” and “defend German cultural values amidst the contemporary cultural decay,” by which the Third Reich’s culture ministers specifically meant modern art, including German Expressionism (Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke) , New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), Futurism, Cubism, Dada, and other key movements. While the title “Combat League” might seem incongruent with artistic production, a Nazi newspaper reporting on the 1937 celebratory procession on the Day of German Art connected Renaissance artists, models of new German architecture, and groups of soldiers in the parade, rhetorically asking, “Are they not brothers, the artists and soldiers?” The arts were a key component and political tool of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Art was so integral to his cultural and racial aims that, only ten months after Hitler became Chancellor, he laid the cornerstone for the first major public building project, the House of German Art. The museum’s first exhibition was a competition only open to those of German nationality or “race.” Hitler personally removed eighty of the 900 works selected, deeming them “unfinished.” His proclivities were toward representational paintings based on nature, finely finished, with clearly understandable narrative or subjects. Hitler’s own past as a student who was twice denied entrance to art school has been suggested as partially explaining his obsession with art and the prerogative he felt to judge it.

Ethical Question: Would you buy Hitler’s Art? —see Michael E. Miller, “Hitler’s artwork sells for $450,000, raising questions about auction house ethics,” Washington Post, June 22, 2015. This short article can be read either in or outside of class and the ethical question could be used as a prompt for discussion or a debate.

At the grand opening of the House of German Art in 1937, Hitler gave the dedicatory speech. Rather than celebrating the works within the new building, he railed in terrifyingly prophetic terms of both the Holocaust and the fight against modern art — “We will from now on, lead an unrelenting war of purification, an unrelenting war of extermination, against the last elements which have displaced our Art.”

As the Nazis rose to power, they formed a new governmental arm, the Reich Chamber of Culture (1933) under Joseph Goebbels, the Minster of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. All artists, writers, musicians, art dealers, and architects were required to belong, but Jews, Communists, and, eventually, those whose styles did not suit the Nazi’s tastes were barred from joining, effectively prohibiting them from holding jobs in the arts, exhibiting or selling their work, and — in some cases — purchasing paints, brushes, or other art supplies. Anyone caught helping prohibited artists to procure art materials was punishable under the law. In 1936, all art criticism was banned, and only “art editors” who followed the National Socialist dogma were allowed to write about art.

Three days after the opening of the House of German Art, the Nazi regime staged what was to be understood as its antithesis, the Degenerate Art exhibition. It was a pedagogical and indoctrination tool meant to prejudice the public against modern art, which often questioned the social order. Slogans accompanied the 113 works of art, drawing attention to the “barbarous methods of representation,” while others declaimed the exhibition as “a representative selection from the endless supply of Jewish trash that no words can adequately describe,” and certain works were labeled as “total madness.” Art that denounced the military was countered by denouncing that art as “a tool of Marxist propaganda against military service,” while other works were charged with exhibiting the “systematic eradication of every last trace of racial consciousness.” For an idea of how the exhibition might have looked, you can show this short excerpt (3:59) from a longer silent film about the Degenerate Art Exhibition by Julien Bryan:

If your students are interested, the full film is available here.

The carefully curated art had been, through newly legal machinations, systematically looted from German museums and private collections. The small sample for the Degenerate Art exhibition was culled from over 16,000 works removed from their proper ownership. Some of those that were not included in the exhibition were exploited for the monetary value and sold through galleries and auctions to pay for the Nazi cause. Nazi officials purloined other works to sell, trade, or add to their own collections. In March of 1939, 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 drawings, watercolors, and graphic images were consigned to a bonfire. Art antithetical to Nazi ideals and values had been effectively purged from Germany and only art deemed racially pure remained.

After purifying their own country’s culture to suit their ideology, the Nazi’s ambitions turned toward destroying and looting art from the countries they were invading. In 1938, Hitler’s grand plan crystalized for a ceremonial city in Linz with an art museum to rival anything in Italy. Nazi art collecting became a mania with the best works reserved for Hitler’s Linz museum. After annexing Austria and taking over five hundred works, the Nazis moved into Czechoslovakia and then Poland, where, after securing art deemed worth having from public, church, and private collections (including the still missing Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael from the Czaroryski Collection), Hitler’s directive to eliminate Polish culture, including artistic and historical patrimony, was enacted.

As Europe watched the Nazis and witnessed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, many countries began preparing their collections with memories of the destruction of World War I in mind. Beginning in 1938, England organized thousands of objects from the British Museum and Tate, among others, for evacuation to Wales and the northwest, but some works were to be reassigned space in tunnels in the London Underground that were no longer in use. On August 22, 1939, upon the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, London museums instituted their evacuation plans. Word spread to the Netherlands, and their museums followed suit. Museums in Paris closed on August 25. They had been readying their collections for this day since 1937 and had meticulous lists with color-coded dots for crates indicating the importance of the contents and carefully planned evacuation routes in place. Even stained-glass windows in cathedrals and churches near Paris were prepared by replacing the stone surrounds of the glass with a putty-like substance that would allow rapid removal of the windows to their specially built crates. The Service d’Architecture des Monuments Historiques had begun stockpiling sand to protect monuments since 1938.

After the French surrendered and signed the armistice with Germany on June 21, 1940, the Nazis controlled most of Europe. Less than ten days later, Hitler issued an order that all public, private, and especially Jewish-owned art objects were to be “safe-guarded,” a euphemistic and useful tool the Nazis employed to take items of cultural heritage for themselves. Lists were to be made of all the artworks in France, after which it would be decided what works would remain in France and what would be sent to Germany. Hitler had been anticipating this day, and, in 1939, he hired two German art historians to surreptitiously conduct research in France. The product of their efforts was the 300-page Memorandum and Lists of Art Looted by the French in the Rhineland in 1794. These works removed by Napoléon’s forces were to be returned to Germany; however, many were spurious claims that happened to fill in particular vacancies in the Linz Museum.

In addition, through various decrees, French nationals, who left the country were no longer citizens and therefore forfeited any belongings left in the country. Many of these emigrants were targeted for being Jewish; Jewish art dealers were an immediate focus. Soon, so many works of art were collected by the Nazis that the Jeu de Paume Museum was requisitioned for a staging depot. In the next few years, 218 major art collections would pass through its doors as well as thousands of objects comprised from many smaller collections. Hermann Goering visited the site and ordered that the objects “saved” by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) — the Nazi cultural arm in charge of systematic looting of art and cultural artifacts — be divided into five categories set aside for: 1) Hitler; 2) himself; 3) the purposes of Rosenberg’s anti-Semitic propaganda; 4) German museums; and 5) division amongst French museums or to be sold on the market. Goering eventually selected over six hundred objects for himself. Between April 1941 and July 1944, the Reich shipped from France to Germany and Austria 4,174 cases that filled 138 railroad cars and contained at least 22,000 objects.

When the Germans took over the Jeu de Paume, they dismissed all French workers except a few cleaning personnel and Rose Valland, who was technically in charge of the wellbeing of the physical building. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Valland understood German and secretly passed along information to the Director of the Louvre who was working with the French Resistance. Her communications about the schedule and routes of trains carrying French patrimony to Germany assisted the fighters in planning attacks around those shipments that would have destroyed art. Nightly, she carried negatives of photographs the Nazis took to record objects they were shipping. A friend made photographs, and the next day Valland would return the negatives with no one the wiser. She secretly made notes cataloguing items that were shipped and their destination. Through her courage and intelligence, she made it possible to rescue many of the works that went through the Jeu de Paume, particularly a huge cache that went to Neuschwanstein Castle, a site hand-picked by Hitler.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art contains a nice article on the collaboration between Valland and James Rorimer and links to an online exhibition and interviews with several of the so-called “Monuments Men” whose purview was to protect works of art (discussed below). This would be a good resource for students to use to write short summaries and present each interviewee’s perspective to the class and to learn about oral interviews.

Hitler’s desire for one specific work led him to finally discard the dictates of the Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of WWI. Singled out and nearly destroyed by the Dutch iconoclasts, lusted after and stolen by Napoléon, the Ghent Altarpiece was an alluring treasure with the power to stir fear and envy over the centuries, and Hitler desired it as a centerpiece for his museum. The deal was conducted secretly and required the cooperation of the Vichy government, which capitulated and ordered the curator to hand over the altarpiece. This deal is discussed thoroughly in Lynn Nicholas’s excellent book, The Rape of Europa.

Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section of the U. S. Army (Monuments Men)

While awaiting the construction of Hitler’s museum in the fall of 1944, the Nazis sent the Ghent Altarpiece from Neuschwanstein to a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, only one hundred miles from Linz, for safe-keeping from Allied forces’ aerial bombing. In late March of 1945, several members of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section of the U.S. Army, more commonly known as the Monuments Men, were using Rose Valland’s information and frantically searching for sites where the Germans were depositing artwork. After an American unit secured the Neuschwanstein Castle, on May 4, 1945 two Monuments Men entered and found a tremendous trove of French patrimony and the meticulous records for the 21,000 objects confiscated and removed from France.

Serendipitously, another detail of two Monuments Men were introduced to Goering’s top man at the Jeu de Paume, who not only showed them on a map the location of Goering’s personal collection and those of many others, but also that of Hitler’s prized treasure, the Ghent Altarpiece at Altaussee. Only eight days after the find at Neuschwanstein, the Monuments Men entered the mine, only to discover that debris had blocked the entrance. In fact, it had been deliberately palsied, or subjected to seventy-six controlled blasts to close it and protect it from the local Nazi governor’s orders to detonate eight 500-kilogram bombs and destroy the mine and all its contents.

When the local miners managed to open a small space, the two Americans entered a corridor and quickly located eight panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. They soon discovered four more panels, plus Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, looted from a church in Belgium, and Hitler’s favorite work, Vermeer’s Astronomer, taken from the Rothschild’s collection in Paris. The scope of the trove intended for the Linz museum was phenomenal, and from a Nazi inventory was initially believed to consist of: 6,577 paintings, 230 drawing and watercolors, 954 prints, 137 sculptures, 129 pieces of armor, 122 tapestries, 283 cases of items not identified, between 1,400 and 1,900 cases of books, 484 cases of archives, and more than 150 decorative objects. The men anticipated having a year to clear the mine shafts, properly inventory the work, and remove it from the mine; however, on June 25, they were informed that they had four days to complete the task, as the territory would be handed over to Stalin in accordance with the Yalta Agreement. They worked sixteen-hour days and into mid-July as the final peace negotiations continued. After its removal, the Ghent Altarpiece was the first object to be repatriated.

The team at Altaussee sent over eight truckloads of objects to the Munich collecting station in one month. Another station was soon opened at Wiesbaden near Berlin, and more were opened to hold the vast number of objects flowing in from former Nazi territories. Monuments Men sorted millions of objects to be repatriated to public collections, churches, and private individuals when they could be identified, but the massive quantity, displacement of objects and people, and death of so many rightful owners meant that the work would continue until 1951.

Right after the war, agreements were reached without input from any Monuments Men that approximately 200 works that were the bona fide property of Germany would be sent to the U.S. in “trusteeship” to keep the objects safe for the German nation, perhaps even residing there until they had met their war obligations. The men and women of the MFAA were livid, and thirty-two of the thirty-five Monuments officers signed or sent letters supporting a statement of ethics entitled the Wiesbaden Manifesto, an act that could have led to court-martial. The Manifesto pointedly drew a parallel between the Allied Nations’ prosecution of individuals who used the “pretext of protective custody,” or “safeguarding” as the Germans called it, of the patrimony of occupied countries and steps taken by the U.S. The men felt they would be just as culpable if this plan were enacted. Furthermore, they avowed:

“We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war. And though this removal may be done with every intention of altruism, we are none the less convinced that it is our duty, individually and collectively, to protest against it, and that though our obligations are to the nation to which we owe allegiance, there are yet further obligations to common justice, decency, and the establishment of the power of right, not of expediency or might, among civilized nations.”

The Wiesbaden Manifesto was an internal protest, but word of it leaked and compounded the dismay of many Americans as well as the British. The masterpieces of German art were sent to the U.S. and toured several cities, but they were ultimately sent back to their homeland after the exhibitions. The Monument Men’s Manifesto had, eventually, done its work and recalled to the nation its conscience.

For additional resources to share with students, see:

Tammam Azzam, Goya, from the series The Syrian Museum, 2013.

Restitution, repatriation, reconstruction, and artistic interventions

Napoléon, Hitler, the Taliban, and more recently ISIS have all resorted to the theft and destruction of meaningful objects of cultural heritage as a means, at least in part, of obliterating a culture’s identity and devastating the spirit of its people. But conversely, an object’s repatriation, restoration, rebuilding, or restitution can play an important role in reconciliation and in a culture’s resiliency. In response to contemporary manmade political situations and natural disasters, new scholarship is beginning to examine and theorize culture as a “basic need,” and to propose that emergency cultural aid be conceptualized, managed, and reconciled with other “basic needs” for survival.

Restitution and Repatriation: Laws, treaties, conventions

Laws respecting the return of cultural patrimony or its restitution (requires acknowledgement of culpability for removal of an object) evolved out of treaties signed at congresses or conventions concluding war, beginning with the 1815 Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars. It was here that the idea that cultural heritage connects people and territories with significant artistic or cultural objects first became entwined with laws. The treaty also enshrined the idea of the inviolability of sales contracts, which is not always compatible with stipulations of peace treaties. The Duke of Wellington pressured France to restore artworks to their countries of origin, establishing a model for the future. President Lincoln recognized the importance of monuments such as churches, libraries, and works of art and commissioned what became known as the Lieber Code to protect such cultural monuments. The code was printed in small pamphlets for Union Soldiers to carry into the field. Several other important conventions followed with more agreements addressing protection and restitution of cultural property.

  • Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution for the Convention, 1954 (Hague Convention and Protocols of 1954)
  • Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970 UNESCO (1970 Convention on Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property)
  • Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972 UNESCO


Restitution and Repatriation: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (a.k.a. Woman in Gold) by Gustave Klimt

This clip provides a good introduction for the next section.

Even with laws in place, new circumstances arise that demand a review or challenge to existing laws. The recently released film, Woman in Gold, based on memoirs by Maria Altmann, an heir of Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose portrait Klimt painted, and Randy Schoenberg, her lawyer and the grandson of the musician Arnold Schoenberg, presents the legal case they brought against the Austrian government that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and concluded in the plaintiff’s favor through arbitration in Austria in 2006. Students could be assigned to watch Woman in Gold or the following documentary: Documentary: Art of the Heist: Lady in Gold [1:00:04].

Restitution and Repatriation: Cornelius Gurlitt

Although the conclusion of WWII has just passed its seventieth year, the ramifications of the Reich’s efforts to redistribute, reorganize, and annihilate some of the people and cultural patrimony of Europe is still with us. In 2014, news broke that Cornelius Gurlitt, a recluse and son of a former Nazi-approved art dealer, had been living with 121 framed and 1,285 unframed artworks looted during the war. Before the Nazis’ ascendancy, the elder Gurlitt had been a dealer in modern art with international connections, so he was assigned to the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art with orders to sell it to fund purchases of traditional work. Among the works discovered in Cornelius’ apartment was one of Henri Matisse’s masterpieces, Seated Woman (1921), which was originally owned by the dealer Paul Rosenberg and had been stashed in his bank vault for safekeeping. Rosenberg’s descendants recognized the work, and in May of 2015 it was returned to them after much effort on the part of their lawyer to prove ownership. There are now further legal challenges, as Gurlitt has died and bequeathed his estate to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. Investigations have determined that at least 380 works in his collection were illegally confiscated, while another 590 works are being subject to provenance searches to establish if they were legally purchased.

A task force has been established, and the public website Lost Art Internet Database-Munich Art Trove is available to begin the claims process; many images are available, as the task force seeks information from the public about the objects. The database includes over four hundred images and as much basic identifying information as is known.

This would be a great source to use for a class project. Each student could consider what information is lacking for particular images and what problems this might present; students could be asked to try and discern patterns within the collection, perhaps with a set number assigned to each student so they all report their findings and create a collaborative project. It could also help make the point that digital technologies are useful in our field and have real world application.

Restitution: Hopi Tribal Council

Other groups, such as the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), continue efforts to reunite families and communities with their cultural inheritance. Recently, in 2015, they partnered with the Hopi Tribal Council to assist them in banning a French auction of the sacred “Katsinam” or “Friends.” The Hopi have been fighting to reclaim these mask-like objects they assert were stolen years ago, many of which found their way to French auctions. In 2013, the Annenberg Foundation secretly bid on twenty-four of the items and secured twenty-one of them to return to the Hopi. The objects are considered living entities with divine spirits and are used in spiritual ceremonies, then retired and left to naturally disintegrate.

The case of the Hopi “Katsinam” is not an isolated or even unusual incident. It is estimated that over 90% of American Indian archaeological sites have been destroyed or looted. It is, perhaps, more likely that we will interact outside of the bounds of museums with American Indian artifacts than other historical objects, and so it is important to consider our ethical obligations. This point could lead to a discussion of shows like Diggers and, especially, American Diggers and the glamorization of unprofessional “digging” as well as the rights to property.

Restitution: Return of East African Heritage

All fields must examine their ethics and the world of art and cultural heritage is no exception. Collections of objects that were once accepted with few questions as to the moral right to own or exhibit them are being reevaluated by both private collectors and public institutions, this is especially true when dealing with belief systems that may be very different from one’s own. One recent example are the vigango (plural) East African memorial totems that the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is returning to Kenya. Although legally obtained through a generous donation in 1990, the museum has determined that these sacred objects need to go back to their community, as it was possible that they had been among those stolen by the hundreds for the art market. The Mijikenda, who live on Kenya’s east coast, will spend up to twice the annual per capita income to have these three-to-nine-foot-tall abstract wood sculptures of the human figure made to honor dead elders, whose spirits are understood to inhabit the object and to bring good luck to the whole community. The museum sent them to the National Museums of Kenya so they could return them to their source communities, not as art objects but as part of a living cultural tradition.

The Controversy over the Parthenon Marbles

A major question in this lecture has been: who owns culture? A debate about the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, or some roleplaying as lawyers (who gets to be Amal Alamuddin, a.k.a., Mrs. George Clooney?) arguing the case with their team of researchers, might be a good way to have students analyze and employ the various arguments.

Reconstruction: Warsaw Castle and Physical Reconstruction

Objects of cultural heritage are a non-renewable source. There is one Mona Lisa, one Parthenon, and one Warsaw Castle. In retribution for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Nazi officials decided to obliterate the castle, because the Polish people felt strong ties to the building and commonly believed that as long as it remained standing, so would they. It was a targeted assault on their national identity for the Nazis to destroy it. Before the demolition could take place, a handful of art historians, at great risk of being shot, removed many of the priceless artifacts and some of the historic fabric of the building’s stone work, fireplace surrounds, marbles, sculptures, flooring, and other items before charges were strategically set and detonated. Fragments were carefully recovered and much of the rescued material was safely hidden and brought back after the war. Although they could not bring back the original building, the country decided to reconstruct the castle with as much of the historical material as possible, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a source of pride for the nation and its people.,_Warsaw
Digital Reconstructions

New technology also can play a role in digitally preserving or reconstructing cultural heritage sites. CyArk provides one example; it a non-profit organization that creates 3D digital records with the goal of saving five hundred sites in the next five years. CyArk has partnered with the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH),the National Science Foundation (NSF), the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and many others. CyArk’s education tab has some great lesson plans. For example, one of their projects was to scan the Assyrian Collection of the British Museum.

After the destruction of the Mosul Museum collection, Matthew Vincent, a cyber archaeologist, doctoral candidate from the University of California at San Diego, and current Fellow at the Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage, and another Fellow, Chance Coughenour, initiated the digital cultural heritage Project Mosul.

The project gives power back to the global community through its mission to crowd-source photographs, digitally mesh them, and create a 3D replica of the no-longer extant works. While a team of experts works on the software, volunteers upload photographs, sort them, create point clouds to make a 3-D mesh and add texture, which makes the images. Anyone, including students, can go to this site and volunteer. Some tasks take very little technological know-how while others require some coding skills. The Mosul Museum did not have full registers or inventories of its holdings nor was it systematically visually documented with a catalog or digital archive, so the crowd-sourcing is more than just a means of letting people participate; it is essential to the success of the project. Through the 3D reconstructions the public can actively counter the violence, loss, and sense of helplessness many feel upon watching the videos of the destruction.

Having students explore the CyArk and Project Mosul sites would be a good prompt for a discussion about the potential benefits and limits of applying new technologies to the problems of losing heritage sites. This exercise might work well in small peer groups.
Artistic Interventions

Many contemporary artists feel compelled to create art that engages with historic and contemporary power struggles over cultural patrimony. Through artistic interventions they can make us question our beliefs or assumptions or grapple with divisive topics. Good art can help us contemplate a life that is not ours and to break down stereotypes. These particular artists use modern technologies to bridge the past and present.

Tammam Azzam is a Syrian-born artist who creates interventionist art that combines digital photograph and street art to protest the destruction rending the fabric of Syria’s physical structures as well as its society. His Freedom Graffiti went viral in 2013. It superimposed Gustave Klimt’s iconic painting The Kiss on the pock-marked and gapping structures of war-torn Damascus. Francesco Goya’s Third of May, 1808 now takes place in a blitzed street in Goya, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night provides the only organic and natural spot amongst the grey wreckage of buildings in Vincent van Gogh Starry Night, and Henri Matisse’s Dancers in their fiery red improbably ring a mound of debris in Matisse. In Azzam’s words, “the Syrian Museum series incorporates iconic subjects from the greatest European masters, paralleling the greatest achievements of humanity with the destruction it is also capable of inflicting.” It also draws attention to the contrast between Syria’s world-class museums and the regime that is obliterating its own cultural heritage.

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian-born artist and activist who studied in Tehran and moved to the U.S. in 2007. She is currently an artist in residence at AutoDesk’s Pier 9 offices in San Francisco. Like the cyber archaeologists at Project Mosul, Allahyari is compelled to reconstruct the lost objects using advanced technologies situated at the edge of the future in order to repair the past and safeguard collective memory. She uses 3D printing to create transparent scaled versions of the sculptures of the Hatra King Uthar and the lamassu shattered at the Mosul Museum. Within them they contain technological DNA (a memory card and flash drive) imprinted with historical information, maps, and data needed to give birth to another Hatra King or lamassu, all without causing destruction to the original/copy. While ISIS attempts to rewrite history to suit their ideological agenda, Allahyari resists through her work, Material Speculation: ISIS.


“I am keenly aware that in the context of a tragic humanitarian crisis, the state of Syria’s cultural heritage may seem secondary. However, I am convinced that each dimension of this crisis must be addressed on its own terms and in its own right. There is no choice between protecting human lives and safeguarding the dignity of a people through its culture. Both must be protected, as the one and same thing—there is no culture without people and no society without culture.” Irina Bokova, Director General UNESCO 2013

At the End of Class...

As mentioned above, here are two potential paper assignments that would follow from a lecture on cultural heritage looting and destruction that built off of each other:

Rape of Europa Summary
(400–450 words)

Watch the two-hour streaming video in its entirety and write a summary. Resources that you may find helpful in writing and understanding the purpose of a summary can be found here:


Current Issues in the Destruction of Cultural Heritage: a Comparison with The Rape of Europa
(250–300 words)

With the case study of The Rape of Europa in mind, research a contemporary issue in the destruction of tangible cultural heritage and draw parallels between it and some of those presented in the film. Please refer to your summary or re-watch segments of the video as needed to make your argument convincing. You will need to search for a substantial article from a reputable reporting agency and include your article(s) or functioning links embedded in your paper. Bring a copy of your essay to class to discuss.

It may help your students if you direct them to the links above in the Background Readings section to get them started with some reputable websites and resources on cultural heritage sites.

Rhonda Reymond (author) is an Associate Professor of Art History at West Virginia University.  Her areas of specialization are Art of the United States (1492-1945) and African American Art, Architecture, and Visual Culture. She won the WVU College of Creative Arts Teaching with Technology Award and Outstanding Teaching Award and has published and presented papers on art history pedagogy.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.