The power of culture to reflect the best aspects of humanity does not always save it from the worst
The recent news that Islamist militants had set fire to the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, as they retreated into the desert after invading and occupying the northern part of Mali, came as a predictable but nonetheless dismaying coda to a short but nasty civil war.
As is often the case in such conflicts, it was characterised by a brutish intolerance of culture and history that did not conform to a narrow extremist worldview, terrifyingly manifest in the calculated destruction of buildings and artefacts. The Ahmed Baba Centre (AR April 2010) was originally designed to house a fraction of Mali’s unique trove of ancient manuscripts, cultural treasures that illuminate past lives and eloquently express Africa’s intellectual tradition. Through the written word and sacred sites (the remarkable mud mosques and shrines of Timbuktu and Djenné), Islam spread through north Africa. Now fanatics clamour to destroy in a day what has endured for centuries, a priceless legacy of books and buildings that reminds us of our common humanity. Around 1,400 manuscripts were lost in the conflagration, but fortunately the bulk of the collection was evacuated before the militants descended on Timbuktu. The building also survived. Books, as the Nazis could attest, burn more easily and more spectacularly than buildings.
Whether it’s the Taliban using giant Buddhas for target practice or Napoleon’s troops allegedly shooting off the Sphinx’s nose, culturalvandalism is nothing new in itself. In the fog of war and its aftermath, the urge to desecrate or proscribe the culture of your vanquished enemy seems to satisfy an innate primeval urge aimed at eradicating a sense of identity and memory. Often this can assume absurdist dimensions. Not content with blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan and banning female education, the Taliban also outlawed kite flying, chess, lobsters and nail polish, among other things.
Yet cultural vandalism is not just confined to the developing world. Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, now relocated from its historic home in Paris to the Louvre’s new SANAA-designed outpost in Lens, was crudely defaced by a visitor intent on gaining publicity for a 9/11 conspiracy theory. Brandishing a marker pen is clearly not the same as systematically burning 1,400 manuscripts, but it raises the issue of how to mediate the interaction between people and things, and the wider relationship between culture and society. ‘We live in violent times, and some of this violence is directed against artistic patrimony’, says William JR Curtis in his critique of the Lens Louvre. As he goes on to observe, this kind of lapse surely calls into question the Louvre’s mission to decentralise high culture by exporting it to the French provinces in a fashionably ethereal architecture that ‘seems fragile despite its weighty contents’. More luxury goods shop than museum, SANAA’s building shows that architects are equally capable of another kind of cultural vandalism.