A Chat With Project Mosul About Rebuilding A Ruined History

Matthew Vincent is one of the members of Project Mosul, an effort to recreate the lost artifacts at the Mosul Museum that were recently destroyed by ISIS fighters. By taking pictures and images of the broken artifacts, the group hopes to recreate them with 3D printers, storing at least the shape and quality of the originals to keep them safe, at least in a digital form. He spoke with me about the project and what it feels like, as an archeologist, to see history destroyed.

TC: Tell me about yourself and your team.

Matthew Vincent: Project Mosul is a volunteer effort that has grown out of the Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage, a Marie Curie Actions programme funded by the European Commission. We are around 17 fellows who are working on this, although the instigators of Project Mosul are myself, Chance Coughenour (another fellow), and the project coordinator Marinos Ioannides.

TC: What does your group do?

MV: We work on digital cultural heritage. The ITN-DCH is all about dealing with cultural heritage as a single, cohesive unit. The digital part is the application of new technologies to traditional heritage, such as the digitisation and preservation of heritage through these new mediums.

TC: Why are you taking up this project?

MV: I am an archaeologist, I’ve been working in Jordan for 11 years now and seeing the destruction in Mosul is just too close to home. In a conversation following the video released the ISIS a couple weeks ago, one fellow suggested that we crowdsource the reconstruction of the Mosul Museum. that was when the project began. There was no reason not to do it, and so Project Mosul was launched.

TC: What do you hope to achieve?

MV: We hope to see a virtual museum come out of this, where as many of the artefacts as possible can be located within a virtual environment and visualised through the web or other environments. The limitations of photogrammetry mean we cannot guarantee the fidelity of the models to the originals, but the visual representations should be enough to give the public access to lost heritage. Furthermore, the 3D models could potentially help to restore any of the originals, even lacking the geometric fidelity.

TC: Has this been done before?

MV: We are not the first to do something like this. One of the more famous examples is the reconstruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan which were originally destroyed by the Taliban. Crowd-sourcing photos for reconstructions dates back even further, with IBM being one of the first to work on a reconstruction, specifically the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which is the earliest photogrammetric reconstruction of a monument, to my knowledge.

TC: Have you spoken to anyone in Mosul?

MV: We are trying to reach out to those in Mosul, but communication isn’t easy and we want to respect the safety of the individuals in the area.

TC: What do you think of this sort of destruction?

MV: As an archaeologist, I am sickened by what I see. My first love was Mesopotamia and the ancient Akkadian and Sumerian languages. To see world heritage sites destroyed is a senseless act of violence. Their actions are those of extremists and do not represent Islam. What they destroy is all pre-Islamic, and represents a shared heritage that much of the world holds, and I would love to see actions taken to protect this heritage. That said, ISIS has done far worse in terms of human lives lost, and the heritage is just one more casualty in a long list of those destroyed by the extremists.

TC: What can museums do to make your job easier?

MV: Museums and public alike. Museums around the world should see this as a wake up call. No museum is safe from these sort of destructive acts, whether they are acts of man or natural disasters, heritage is a treasure to be preserved for generations to come. Museums can take preventative measures and digitise and publish their collections in open formats. One challenge we face with the Mosul Museum is that they’ve effectively been closed for over 10 years (since the 2003 invasion of Iraq). That means there aren’t a lot of pictures of the museum and its artefacts. Museums that do not allow photography could jeopardise the opportunities for future digital reconstructions by not allow the public to capture what they see in those institutions. Better yet, museums should open source 3D digitisations of the artefacts, giving the public direct access to the collections and democratising the data for all. However, this is something that must come from the museums, and it is not something we can simply usurp.

On the same lines, we need the public to support our museums, and make it clear that they will be maintained no matter what. Project Mosul is about showing the world that we don’t want to see a single museum lost in times of crisis, and that we are willing to be our time and energy into the preservation of these memory institutions, even with limited information and resources available. But, much of this can be avoided if museums open-source their collections, and make it a priority to digitise their collections and get them online. Furthermore, this helps with the looting issues, as these models can be accessed by law-enforcement agencies to help identify looted antiquities on the market.