Who destroys memory, can dominate the future

Cristina Miedico

Palmyra before the destruction (Foto Archivio Pal.M.A.I.S)

Palmyra before the destruction (Foto Archivio Pal.M.A.I.S)

Museums and Monuments, when evocative and in good conditions, are powerful weapons against those who have carefully planned to demolish the beauty, to kill and eliminate any example of human and cultural sharing, to erase the memory of our society, composed by many aspects, cultures, realities.

If we want to counter those who destroy, we need to understand exactly what they are destroying and defend ourselves by raising the banner of the wonder that Mankind has been able to produce in every age, at every latitude, by learning, watching, putting into question and listening. We need Museums of the Good.

Recent data published by Federcultura reveal that Italy is still among the last countries in Europe regarding the amount of public spending on culture. The good news is that in the last year there has been a 7% increase in the number of visitors to Museums and archaeological and historical Monuments, an extremely positive indication, which makes us all very happy. Milan has a leadership role for cultural investments and obviously the current municipality has realized that culture improves the quality of life and promotes the psychological well-being of people. Given this data, which I hope continues to increase, I wonder why the demolition of monuments still perpetrated by ISIS terrorists generate such outrage, why people love and feel the need to visit ancient places or to see historical remains, why they appreciate a monument or an exhibit recalling their history.

I'm used to look in the past for almost all the answers relating to the present. I work in an archaeological museum and then I also need to understand what visitors are looking for. I have to be able to hear the unspoken questions of those who decide to visit an exhibition, a monument, a museum. Only by understanding these questions, I can try to provide some answers. After twenty years of experience, I realized that, regardless of nationality, education level, age, religion, personal ability, almost all visitors need the beauty, first of all, but also the roots. Since an early age we want to know where we come from, and how, where, when we were born; we learn from our parents and we recognize ourselves in the traditions of our family. As we expand our knowledge, we begin to wonder which group we belong to and we need to recognize ourselves in common myths and shared values, which make us feel similar to those around us, we need to feel part of a human community, to share the path that it is following. In the best cases we try to deal constructively with the 'others', with what is different from us, with the unknown, giving the opportunity for ourselves and the 'others' to grow each other by sharing our expertise. In the worst case, if we face a certain privation, real or perceived, and we are not able to take the responsibility, our relationship with the 'other' is completely different, we begin to fear what we do not know, we are afraid of anyone who is not like us, we fear that the ''other ‘might damage us, in the same way we would be ready to harm him. And here we raise walls, look for the guilt and the guilty, build an alibi, categorically deny the value of the 'other' and end up with the clash.

As an italian archaeologist I know that our 8,000 km of coastline, our navigable rivers, our fertile plains, wooded hills, beautiful landscapes, have always ensured that our territory was crossed by countless nations, cultures, groups of people, which became integrated, learned and taught a lot. Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, Etruscans, and later the Normans, Arabs, just to name a few ... We would not have had the exceptional development that Italy achieved without interruption for thousands of years, if we had not come across so many different peoples. Alphabet,bread,wine, amber, lathe, Apollo and Dionysus, lost-wax casting, Cybele and Mitra, painting and mosaics,theater, novel, jewelry, dates, peaches, irrigation systems, algebra, Christianity. Much of what we consider 'our' has been taught to us by 'others' and then to 'others' we must recognize the merit.

Those who visit exhibitions, museums and monuments are fascinated by ancient cultures: "We just did not invent anything" they repeat, “it is impressive how once Men were able to build monumental and eternal structures without modern machinery; prehistoric peoples had knowledges we have lost; Assyrian reliefs, Egyptian tombs, Macedonians mosaics are of a such beauty that we humble contemporaries would not even remotely been able to imitate”and still much more.

What happens in people who train the memory and become involved with the multiple stories that a museum can tell?People looking for ancient and art find out that 3,000 or 500 years ago men and women had exactly the same fears we have, the same feelings, the same dreams, no matter where they were born or raised. People understand, deeply, that our genetic proximity to chimpanzees is incredible, that mankind is only one, that national borders are a very recent invention, that from the evolution of Homo Sapiens to date very little has changed, that all World achievements were only possible thanks to the ability to communicate and collaborate, which distinguishes mankind from other animal species. Whoever reaches this awareness goes back home happier, stronger, more human. Memory and beauty are indeed wonderfully able to make us better and closer to each other.

History is life mentor, it has been repeated for millennia, we are also fully aware that only if we place ourselves in front of our mistakes, we can avoid repeating them, only if we continue to show the horror of war, we will intensely pursue peace, only if we continue relentlessly to denounce the genocide, only if we assume the responsibility, we would swear to ourselves and to the world, NEVER AGAIN.

Museums and monuments are just that, they are extraordinary tools for social and cultural sharing, thanks to their ability to tell stories of Men and Women like us, to create beauty, empathy and human consciousness. This is the reason why someone wants to destroy them.

The ISIS continues to demolish with impunity Palmyra monuments, Syrian museums and archaeological sitesand not only; it continues to cancel and eliminate the memory of everyone, their memory first and foremost, but also our own. While I cry I read about allegations of incivility and deprivation, but this explanation does not satisfy me, it can not be so simple: if they were so "uncivilized" opposed to "we" so much civilized, we would be able to stop them, we would have stopped them since a long time, but we did not, apparently the situation is more complicated than that and I need to understand.

To demolish Palmyra tetrapylon or the proscenium of the Roman theater, to sell off all the archaeological remains stolen away from the showcases or from the monuments, are not actions taken by a few ignorant people, they not only serve to frighten the West, to insult those who think that heritage is universal, or to buy weapons, is much more serious than that. The actions taken by the ISIS are far more sophisticated, planned, dramatic and irremediable. Those monuments are no longer there today and will no longer be there tomorrow to testify that a different world is possible. Even if the terrifying absolutism of the ISIS were defeated, no Syrian students will never again visit the oasis of Palmyra, no one will stare open-mouthed in front of that unique and incomparablesplendor, no one will tell those children that once there was a rich and beautiful city in which people of different cultures, languages and religionslived in peace. Nobody will ever know that it existed and therefore can still exist a country where living together in mutual respect is possible, a country that is the gateway to the East for those coming from the West and the gateway to the West for those coming from the East. To destroy the memory means to cancel the possibility to demonstrate and to understand that another world, different from the present, existed and therefore is possible.

It would be like thinking that the baroque facade of the Cathedral of Syracuse is enough to forget that it is a pagan temple. It would be like continuing to forget that Athens was for centuries an Islamic city and believe that having demolished all the minarets and restored the monuments of the mythical Athenian democracy is enough to take the people back to the time of Pericles; and unfortunately the beautiful BenakiMuseum of Islamic Art, near the Agora, will not do much if it is left alone to remember such a memory. It would be like claiming that Europe has always been a completely Christian country, pretending not to know that its name comes from a Middle Eastern girl, and maybe even ending with destroying Granada or Cordoba, historical and artistic bastions of social, economic and cultural sharing between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Now I am even more afraid than before: the ISIS terrorists are not possessed, insane, incompetent, uncivilized, if we continue to deceive ourselves with their ignorance, we will never be able to find the way to address them. The ISIS terrorists follow a very specific projectto destroy memory in order to build a whole society in their own image, in which they can have an absolute and undisputed power, in which there are no different experiences or points of view and there is no other truth than what they profess to be real.

The only weapon we have against those who demolish monuments is therefore the enhancement of memory, the protection of places, objects, Museums. The more sites will be destroyed, the more funds will be given to the Museums, and to the places and voices that tell our story. We need to talk about the monuments and works of art, and to show their evocative power, to allow them to tell our story, our essence, our nature of hopelessly and wonderfully unique and mixed beings.

An indispensable tool, if we want to oppose the ISIS, is to prevent terrorists from canceling our awareness of mixed beings, and to highlight how much of the 'others' is in each of us, trying to promote ourselves valuing the 'others',pointing out to the 'others' how much of us live in them, continuing to demonstrate in practice that a different choice from absolutism, fundamentalism, nationalism is possible, that a different world is possible, that a better future is possible.

The Memory of the museums together with the Memory of the Righteous will lead to build new museums, the Museum of the Good.

Cristina Miedico

Analysis by

6 February 2017

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

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