Reflections on the Ethics of Tangible Cultural Heritage Reconstruction


When reflecting on the recently reconstructed Triumphal Arch from Palmyra which was destroyed by ISIS in May 2015, I have found myself considering the anxiety that surrounds the recreation or reconstruction of cultural heritage artefacts.  On the face of it, the use of digital technology adds extra dimensions to discussions about the ethics of cultural heritage conservation.  In an age of digital reproduction, one of the primary questions appears to have become not whether we can reconstruct cultural artefacts, but rather whether we should.  This question becomes particularly sensitive when it is applied to the physical restoration of tangible cultural heritage that has been destroyed as a result of armed conflict.  Even more so, when the culture in question is still the subject of deliberate destruction.


However, when we drill down into the question of whether or not we should be reconstructing cultural heritage objects we find that there is nothing particularly new about the situation in which conservation professionals now find themselves. Firstly, the replication of cultural artefacts (both 2D and 3D) is not a modern phenomenon nor are the anxieties surrounding their reproduction.  In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote that ‘man-made artefacts could always be imitated by men’.  Benjamin was most concerned with the ‘aura’ of the artefact and according to him the most destructive social consequence of mechanical reproduction is ‘the liquidation of the traditional value of cultural heritage’ (Benjamin).

Secondly, whilst concerns for cultural heritage during times of armed conflict run the risk of appearing indifferent to the immediate need to preserve human life, the desire to conserve and protect cultural heritage objects during times of active combat is well documented.  Perhaps most famously, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program was established during the second world war to protect and preserve Europe’s cultural heritage.

Similarly, the reconstruction of a people’s cultural heritage post-armed conflict is not without precedent.  Moreover, the restoration of cultural artefacts in the immediate aftermath of the object’s destruction is not unprecedented.  The example of the destruction of the Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth Relic) of Sri Lanka destroyed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in 1998 will serve as an example for both points.  In the day immediately following the destruction of the Temple, calls were made for its restoration and Sri Lankans proceeded to rebuilt this significant cultural symbol.  So why the anxiety?

The anthropologist Valene Smith has written: ‘Wars are without equal as the time-makers of society.  Lives are so irrevocably changed that culture and behaviour are marked by three phases: “before the war”, “during the war”, and “after the war”’ (Smith).  Cultures develop and transform throughout the course of and as a direct result of armed conflict.  In relation to the 3D-printed scale model of the Triumphal Arch from Palmyra, Mark Sinclair has suggested that what is unprecedented is the ability to reconstruct cultural artefacts “during the war” (to employ Smith’s terminology) and to my mind this is ultimately the source of the anxiety surrounding the reconstruction of the Arch of Triumph (Sinclair).


The question then, is not really should we reconstruct cultural heritage objects, but rather when should we reconstruct them?  One advantage that digital reproduction has over mechanical reproduction is the ability store large amounts of detailed information without having to produce replications.  Given that it is no longer necessary, is it appropriate to recreate the artefacts of a culture that is still under threat?  As the copyist Adam Lowe has observed, ‘the critical thing now is to document. Later we can decide what to do with the material we collect’ (Sattin).


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. N.p. Web.

Sattin, Anthony. Meet the Master of Reproduction. N.p., 2015. Web.

Sinclair, Mark. Should Museums Be Recreating the Past. N.p., 2016. Web.

Smith, Valerie. “War and Tourism: An American Ethnography.” Annals of Tourism Research 25.1 (1998): 202–27. Print.

Further Reading

Stanley-Price, Nicolas. Cultural Heritage in Postwar Recovery. ICCROM, 2005. Web.