AKPIA@MIT Lecture - Digital Colonialism?: Thoughts on the Ethics of Digital Recreations of Threatened Cultural Heritage Sites in the Middle East

Jose Luis Arguello's picture
November 7, 2016
Massachusetts, United States
Subject Fields: 
Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies

6:00 pm in room MIT 3-133

The Islamic State’s destruction of archeological sites including Palmyra and Nimrud in 2015 was widely covered in the Western media, and has launched a flurry of projects with the goal of combatting the destruction through the use of digital technologies. Technologies such as 3D modeling and printing have been hailed as salvific, and their ability to preserve threatened sites, reconstruct destroyed ones, and disseminate knowledge of the past cheaply and easily all over the globe have been called the only possible remedy for IS’ destruction. But is it really so simple? Thompson’s talk will analyze some potential downsides to digital reconstructions of threatened cultural heritage, focusing on the lack of control offered to local residents over the creation, dissemination, and interpretation of digitized sites, and the way this “digital colonialism” sometimes mirrors that of past image-making by Western visitors to these sites.

I hold a PhD in art history and a JD, both from Columbia, and worked as a lawyer for both a large law firm and the City of New York ethics board before taking my current position as an assistant professor of art crime, fraud, and forensics. As America’s only full-time professor of art crime, I study the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art. I have discussed art crime in academic articles as well as publications in The New York Times, Aeon.com, and on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and the Freakonomics podcast. My latest book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (Yale, 2016), covers the history of private collecting of Greek and Roman antiquities, examining collectors’ writings to determine their self-conceptions of their collecting behavior. In 2015, I curated an exhibit, “The Missing,” which was the first exhibit to showcase the efforts of artists and scholars to resist ISIS and other forms of destruction of the past through creative and innovative reactions, protests, and reconstructions Currently, I am researching the ways in which terrorist groups both sell and destroy art in order to support their genocidal campaigns; the legalities and ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage; and forensic archeology - what we learn about ourselves and our future from the bodies of the ancient dead.

Contact Info: 

AKPIA@MIT Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT
MIT Room 10-390
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617-253-1400
fax: 617-258-8172

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