Artist Piers Secunda has been making work that documents the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage for ten years. One of Secunda’s pieces is on display at IWM London as part of What Remains, an exhibition in partnership with Historic England that explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war and the ways we save, protect and restore what is targeted.
In 2015, ISIS released footage purporting to show their fighters smashing artefacts and toppling statues at Mosul Museum. Three years later, Piers Secunda travelled to the museum to examine what had been destroyed and what remained after ISIS had been driven out.
‘You see the pictures ISIS made, propaganda films about what they were doing and they filmed it in great detail and it’s harrowing to watch, it’s really disturbing and you feel it, you really feel it inside.’
Seeing the damage at the Museum in person was ‘disturbing in the extreme’, and Secunda also travelled with the Iraqi military to the town of Qaraqosh, which had been occupied by ISIS.
Seeing the destruction at Qaraqosh so soon after seeing the damage in Mosul was an ‘emotional overload’.
‘I had to walk away from these group of soldiers and a couple of government people I was with and have a moment on my own to gather myself emotionally because I was on the edge of just, just…bursting into tears, quite frankly, it was all really too much. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who live there and have to go through it.’
Secunda moulded the damaged surfaces of sculptures which ISIS had attacked with power tools, and used these moulds to create a series of artworks reflecting on the destruction.
In ISIS Damage Painting (Genie Head), which is on display in What Remains, Secunda has created two reproductions of an ancient Assyrian relief.
One is shown intact, but the other has been perforated with the moulds Secunda made in Mosul.
Visitors can see this artwork in What Remains at IWM London.
Secunda believes that displaying objects that tell the story of how culture has been targeted in conflict is both a lesson and a warning from history.
‘To be quite frank, if we can’t learn from these and understand the dangers of not protecting our culture and our heritage, then we’re in a very, very bad position and it’s part of the position of an institution like the Imperial War Museum to function as a conscience of the public mind and to remind us how badly wrong things can go if we don’t learn these lessons from history, which this exhibition shows very clearly.’