"Protecting Cultural Heritage in an Uncertain Time," a symposium, was held in late October in Washington D.C. New York University, the Friends of Florence, the city of Florence, and other Italian cultural and governmental organizations sponsored the event. The symposium highlighted a latter day and ongoing tragedy-the material cultural cleansing now being perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq-and it brought together a distinguished group of international experts and cultural heritage authorities for a spirited, thought-provoking exchange. Included were scholars, politicians, professionals from UNESCO and other heritage organizations, as well as computer specialists and entrepreneurs working in "virtual heritage." The groups' central charge was to think about the prospects for reconstructing, whether physically or digitally or someplace in-between, damaged and destroyed heritage.
Dr. James Janowski, H-SC professor of philosophy who has come to be recognized as an expert on the foundational questions and issues that arise in thinking about the conservation and restoration of artworks and cultural heritage, was invited to address the "feasibility, desirability, and ethics" of reconstruction. In "Destroyed Icons: Is Reconstruction Rightful?" Dr. Janowski focused on the nature of heritage objects, both pre-destruction and post-reconstruction, and gave a "cautious, in-principle endorsement" of resuscitating desecrated icons.
Assessing contemporary computer applications that "rebuild" compromised and destroyed artifacts, Dr. Janowski commented: "Digital technologies raise interesting possibilities in terms of responding, whether after the fact or prophylactically, to iconoclasm, vandalism, and indeed to cultural heritage disasters more generally. I believe these technologies have promise. But the technology outstrips our understanding, and its employment raises serious and difficult questions about the status of the reconstructed objects that result."
While Dr. Janowski and his colleagues left D.C. without any answers, they nonetheless began a crucial interdisciplinary conversation in which experts from around the globe will struggle to determine the best response to the horrific destruction of the world's material cultural heritage. Dr. Janowski said: "One thing that is certain is that this very important discussion must and will continue."
Information about the symposium and a video of Janowski's talk is available at the New York University website.