Volunteering with EMOTIVE EU

On 30 September, 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer with EMOTIVE EU as part of Explorathon 2017. EMOTIVE is an EU-funded research project (2016-2019) that uses emotional digital storytelling to improve how we experience cultural heritage (http://emotiveproject.eu/). One of the two cultural sites of the project is the Antonine Wall exhibition at the Hunterian Museum (https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/) at the University of Glasgow. The Antonine Wall is a World Heritage site (http://www.antoninewall.org/). It was built by the Romans ca. 142 CE and ran coast-to-coast across Scotland (from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth); it was the most northern frontier of the Roman Empire and was abandoned in the late 150s.

I worked with two groups of students from Castlemilk John Paul II Primary School. We discussed what life would have been like for a young girl named Verecunda, who was a Caledonian slave. This blog post is a summation of my notes throughout the day.

I had a great day — thank you to all facilitators, organizers, and volunteers for creating such a lovely atmosphere to work in! It was also great to meet Sara Perry, a fellow Canadian!

My first group with Verecunda was extremely lively and involved. I had two girls, named Lucy and Mercedes, and one boy, named Michael. They were attentive while Ann was giving an overview of Verecunda’s story, and they were also eager to get started. I think that seeing all of the supplies and large papers got them excited. I asked them their thoughts on what activities Verecunda would be doing during her day. Both Lucy and Mercedes mentioned chores — cleaning, washing, etc. Michael suggested that she might be taking care of the farm animals. All three of them focussed more on writing than drawing on the paper, which I thought was interesting. We had a lively discussion and asked each other questions back and forth. Their questions to me started out to be fairly simple: “How and with what did she clean? Did she have to take care of pigs? What was the Roman general like? What did their money look like?” Luckily, some of my background is in Classics/Roman history, so I was able to direct them towards some likely answers. As we got deeper into our conversation, more probing and complex questions were being asked as they became more invested in Verecunda’s story: “Why is there slavery?” And my favourite question of the whole day was from Lucy: “Is Roman vs Caledonian identity similar here to how it is in Shakespeare’s ‘Boudicca’?” Luckily, I know my Shakespeare! I filled in the others as to the plot of ‘Boudicca’ so that we could discuss issues of identity.

Here is a link to the image on my personal Instagram account of this trio: https://www.instagram.com/p/BZoa7LyDxUU/?hl=en&taken-by=mckailaferguson. I tagged the University of Glasgow, The Hunterian, and Emotive EU. I also used the hashtags that we discussed in our meeting.

My second group with Verecunda was also involved, but they had a different energy about them. It was made up of four boys, named Reese, Andrew, Cody, and William. They were quite chatty and appeared to be good pals. This group was interested in my Canadian accent, so we had a good chat about some Canadian and Glaswegian slang. Surprisingly, this group was very interested in Verecunda. They even mentioned that they liked this exercise more than the one with Ebutius that they just came from. These four drew pictures of everything that they talked about, as opposed to my first group that wrote everything down. They wondered if Verecunda and Ebutius were pals. They had many questions about animals and had a discussion about whether or not Verecunda would be in-charge of cleaning all of the weapons and armour, since she lived with the Roman general. Reese was particularly interested in what her house would have looked like. He spent the entire time drawing a very beautiful and detailed house, while still making sure he was contributing to the conversation. This group was keen on knowing more about Roman military history: “What were their weapons like? Who were they fighting?” Again, the questions quickly became more probing and complex: “Why did the Romans conquer other people? If Verecunda was a slave, why didn’t she just escape?” This last question sparked quite the debate. Two of them thought that running away would have been her best bet because being a slave would be rubbish. The other two were trying to convince the group that she didn’t have it that bad, and that staying with her new family would provide her with food and shelter. They thought that she would die very quickly after she escaped. All four of the boys travel quite often, so they wondered if Verecunda and her Roman family would travel up and down the wall.

Both groups really enjoyed this exercise. I tried not to answer their questions directly, but rather asked them questions about what they thought the answer might be. They seemed to enjoy this because they had freedom to be imaginative, creatively problem solve, and work together with their pals as a team. Interestingly, they didn’t favour Ebutius’ activity which involved technology. That made me wonder how much technology they have access to and use in their classrooms. Perhaps they enjoyed Verecunda because they could control every aspect of the conversation and use their own creativity to create a narrative? Both groups wanted a bit more time with Verecunda since we just started to scratch the surface.

Some suggestions based on comments that I received:

  • It would be a good idea to have many more colours of pen/marker to choose from. Some of my kids got really caught up with the accuracy of the colours to what they were drawing.
  • Having a bit more time to get into Verecunda’s story some more. They were too eager to want to stop! Maybe having a performative element at the end would have been a nice wrap-up.
  • The kids wanted some more details about her life. They also really loved how enthusiastic and entertaining Ann was, so having Ann say some more details about her life at the beginning would have helped.
  • Near the end, the kids were interested in the Hunterian Museum. Perhaps having some time before or after the activity for them to roam around and see everything would be a good idea.

I got to work with Ebutius and the public during the afternoon, which was great! Before I followed the public around, I did the task myself. It was quite different from what I was anticipating. I had more control over the story than I thought I would. However, I found myself reading the screen the whole time and not looking at the objects as much as I should have. After I was done, I walked around again so I could see everything. The voice of Ebutius and the other characters were so great!

The people that I was following were university students or older. It was interesting to see if people decided to share a tablet with their partner/friend, or if they wanted their own. As soon as people put on the headphones and started the story, you could tell what their relationship to each other was instantly. I tried not to be super obvious that I was following them as I didn’t want my presence to impact their experience.

Some comments that I received:

  • A few groups wanted to be able to see their progress visually, perhaps in a small sidebar on the app. They wanted to know what they had decided, and how much they had left to do in a map form.
  • The app was very user friendly and intuitive, but some older visitors wanted it to be a bit louder.
  • They liked the varied lengths of the excerpts, with some being longer interspersed with a few shorter ones.
  • As the person following everyone, it would be very helpful to have where the objects are located on the map. A simple highlight would do just fine!
  • Some groups wanted to have a go around the exhibition before they started with the tablets, so that they could familiarize themselves with the space and objects. They didn’t know about the Antonine Wall at all, and felt like they were thrown into this story with no context. One of the groups attended a MUSE tour of the exhibition a few weeks ago and thought that this exercise was a great compliment to the tour, since they had some context and information on which to build Ebutius’ story.

Future Flowerings

Kelvingrove Museum
Kelvingrove Museum, picture credit: People Make Glasgow

In Scotland today we have nearly 500 museums and galleries in operation, and that is just the official institutions. There are a multitude of heritage groups and community outreach groups that would not appear on this list, nor does it account for the online presence of virtual museums and digital collections. I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a family and a country that supports the idea that museums are for all, our cultural and social heritage is for all of us to access. We support it with the majority of our museums being free to use, thus creating a space where the socio-economic factor is removed almost entirely. I say almost, because still today when it comes to cultural and heritage access there would appear to be some obstructive factor.

A recent survey performed by The Scottish Government in their 2013 Scottish Household Survey showed that access is still very low. But more saddening for me was the answer to the statement ‘Culture and the arts are not really for people like me’, with the data collected on the basis of educational attainment. 26 percent of those asked who had no qualifications at all, agreed with the statement compared to the 8 percent of those with university education. One of the reasons may be cultural exclusion of an entire group, i.e. the complete disregard and dismissal of their culture.

I am lucky to have grown up in many places in my life but the two regions of Scotland I call home are Greater Glasgow and North and East Ayrshire. I feel privileged to have known so many incredible, capable and socially and culturally engaged people who indeed belong to this lower SIMD group. SIMD is the means with which  the Scottish Government quantifies social deprivation in Scotland and what they have used to qualify their statistical analysis of cultural engagement.

I have said that the people I have known have been socially and culturally engaged individuals, but what I’m not saying is that we sat around talking about fine art or museum collections. What I mean by socially and culturally engaged is that they were proud and interested in their cultural heritage, the things that they experienced in their lives that made them who they were. The stories of the great industrial heritage with meaningful long-term employment and the social activities and engagement that went along with it.

ICI Factory, Ardeer, Ayrshire circa 1980, picture credit: thethreetowners.net

I grew up wondering why it was dismissed, why people thought it wasn’t for them to go to Kelvingrove Museum, or The Dick Institute? I had attended both and seen the exhibitions on industrial and working class heritage, so what was keeping them away. What was the driving attitude that put them off? And sadly not too long ago it hit me and I didn’t quite like it. The BBC has a rich history of creating documentaries about Scottish communities and the people who live within them. One such documentary was entitled ‘The Scheme’, first televised in 2010. It has had many reruns and won a Bafta for its blindingly honest portrayal of working class life in one of the most deprived area’s of Scotland and the most deprived area in Kilmarnock. However it was one day when I was in a tutorial that the group got to talking about this television programme. Many described it as poverty porn, the people uncouth, uncivilised and uncultured, but one of the girls in this tutorial was from Kilmarnock and spoke at length to us all about how it was a ‘horrid little show’ that told the worst of North/East Ayrshire and she felt ashamed. I told her I was from Kilmarnock originally too and she looked to me for back up.

“The Scheme” she said “It’s so horribly embarrassing don’t you think?” she looked to me. “Well, no actually. My first house was there. I’m from that scheme” I told her truthfully, “I’m really proud of all of them, actually” I told her. The look that was cast in my direction from the moment I told her this information was not as polite as a tutorial room would call for. She looked at me like I was beneath her and I was upset, I admit, despite the fact that I spent most of my formative years in North Glasgow, the look she gave me wrote me off, but it didn’t just write me off it wrote off a whole community. “Proud?” she made the look again “Proud” I reiterated. And I was proud, I was so proud of this documentary that encouraged the people from one of the most deprived areas in Scotland to open their doors, into their homes to display their lives and their culture exactly as it was. They opened the doors leaving themselves open to being ogled, ridiculed and belittled,  but they did it none the less.

My pride in these people is actually neither here nor there, what I realised in that moment was that she was attempting to make me feel no pride or warmth for where I came from. And I realised that it was this sneering attitude that put people off accessing higher learning and cultural activities. Not money, but class, and although the two often go hand in hand, it was this attitude has made the people of the lowest sociodemographic groups feel like the culture propagated in museums is not their culture, but rather the culture of those who make them feel ashamed of theirs. To quote Ben Okri:

“Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

Future flowerings is what these written off communities need and indeed deserve. Nobody should be ashamed of where they come from, all cultural heritage should be celebrated. And that is why it is incumbent upon those nearly 500 great institutions to reach out to their communities and show them that the space they have created is for everyone. A space that guarantees a future flowering for all.



Visit Scotland Museums Directory

2013 Scottish Household Survey


Robertson, J., Joseph Knight, (London: Fourth Estate, 2003)



Dear iTunes…I Hate You

It seems everyone has an experience losing something on their computer, whether it’s an essay that gets corrupted the night before its due, a huge Excel file that takes 20 minutes to save then crashes, or your entire music library getting wiped out. I have had several bad experiences with technology that resulted in major losses of data. It seems like we’ve all had our computer troubles that make us want to scream, and I have, very loudly at times. But there’s one for me that takes the cake.

Back in November 2015, I travelled to the UK from my home in the United States for the first time on a solo backpacking trip. I toured around London and then took an overnight train up to Scotland to visit Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands. While there I visited countless museums, castles, historic sites, and homes.  It was also during this time that I fell in love with University of Glasgow discovered the Museum Studies program. I brought with me a point and shoot Canon camera and my iPhone 5S (which actually took better pictures than the camera), and used both to document my adventures. Over the entire three and a half week trip I took about 2,000 pictures, most of which were landscapes and artefacts from museums so I could remember the amazing things I saw.

Three days after returning home, I went to a Black Friday sale, the largest shopping day in the US, and upgraded my iPhone to the 6S. The worker at Best Buy ensured me that all the pictures from my trip would be safely transferred to the new iPhone. They were. Fast forward two days to when I finally plugged in the new phone into my computer to transfer over the pictures. iTunes automatically comes up and recognizes the new phone with a pop up window stating ‘Would you like to restore this iPhone.’ Not knowing any better, I clicked ‘Yes.’ After watching the progress bar complete the task, I noticed that all the pictures on the phone were from six months before from the last backup, none recent. I started to freak out as I frantically searched through iTunes and the rest of my computer wondering where the 1,000 pictures on the phone were. I went through every folder and crevice of the computer but they were missing. I had a huge melt down, complete with angry crying and screaming as I realised most of the memories I had from my trip were missing.

I proceeded to call Apple support and was on the phone with them for two hours. All they could tell me was that because I decided to ‘restore’ the iPhone, iTunes deleted all the data on the hard drive and replaced it with the data from the last back up which I had done months ago. I was so angry at myself, Apple, iTunes software, and even my new iPhone. I could get nothing back, all the data was gone. All that remained of my amazing trip were the photos I had taken on the point and shoot Canon camera (albeit there were 1,000 pictures on there as well). I felt like a chunk of my memories were missing – it was like the trip never happened at all.

It took a while for me to even consider taking pictures on my new phone or even installing an update. I am still wary of using iTunes and syncing my phone. I almost never do it because I am afraid of what could happen. I will only open up a file explorer to drag and drop the pictures off my phone now.

I am so happy to be back in Scotland where I will have a chance to retake the pictures I lost. After two years, I started to love my iPhone again and its ease of use, but I will always have a scar in my heart caused by iTunes.

Moral of the story:

-DON’T USE iTUNES….Just kidding. It is a good application to listen to music. I share an Apple Music subscription with my family.

– Always backup your important data to an external source like a separate hard drive, iCloud, Google Drive, etc.

– Always verify backups, and keep them up to date before you do something that could wipe data

This experience in particular made me realise the importance of backing up digital data and, as a Museum Studies student, how it relates to digital information at museums, archives, and libraries. Many have information stored in online databases, and it is important to have offsite backups in a secure location that is accessible and properly catalogued. Let’s hope they take these precautions and don’t suffer my fate.


Tibetan Sand Mandalas

While I was reading through the blog posts for this week from some of my classmates, I found that there was a strong focus on the negative impacts of destruction. When I think of the word “destruction,” my mind automatically brings up other synonymous terms and ideas such as annihilation, erasure, and removing something from existence. Usually, these come from moments of disaster, be they naturally occurring or deliberate human intervention. Destruction can be associated with loss and devastation, but it can also be thought about in terms of renewal and growth. What does it mean for a work of art to be “destroyed” by the hand of the artist? What if the destruction of the work was not malicious or out of anger? What if the act of destruction was the last stage of completing the work? In this blog post, I would like to bring these questions into the context of Tibetan Sand Mandalas.

Before taking various South East Asian art and architecture courses during my undergraduate degree, I had very negative ideas about the destruction of art (i.e. The Bamiyan Buddhas, the vandalism on Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” etc.). These moments in history were performed by people who were angry and had issues with the political, social, or religious climate by which they were surrounded.

During these art history courses, my views surrounding “the destruction of art” changed. I’m sure that most people doing this Museum Studies degree have seen a sand mandala either on the internet or in real life. They are beautiful and take days, sometimes weeks, to create. A mandala is a visual microcosm of the universe. It shows the universe perfectly balanced; positive and negative, male and female, creation and destruction, mountain and river. When a mandala is created, and all of these complementary energies are joined, aspects of the earth begin to heal.

Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery creating a sand mandala in Penticton British Columbia, September 2017. Image: Penticton Art Gallery, 2017 (http://pentictonartgallery.com/events/2017/9/13/drepung-loseling-monks

Sand mandalas are beautiful with their vivid colours, complex symbolism, and iconography. Each grain of sand is placed onto the mandala by a team of monks. This act is meant to bring the community together. A series of meditations occur both during and after the completion of the mandala, where the participants take a moment to reflect on the power of the universe. This article from The Ancient History Encyclopedia provides a detailed account of the processes involved in sand mandala creation.

Once the mandala is complete, and the last prayers and songs are sung, the monks sweep away the sand. The scoop every last grain into the nearest river or body of water to spread the energies of the mandala into the land, returning the sand back to the earth. This “destruction” is meant to symbolize that nothing is permanent and everything is ephemeral. Creating these mandalas is an exercise in letting go. The artists destroy their work in an act of furthering their attainment of enlightenment.

Monk sweeping away sand mandala. Image: University of Puget Sound, 2016 (https://www.pugetsound.edu/news-and-events/campus-news/details/1461/)

Earlier this month, I had the honour and opportunity to watch the Drepung Loseling Monks create a sand mandala at the Penticton Art Gallery, in Penticton B.C. Canada, which is where my family lives. The monks were apart of the Mystical Arts of Tibet, a world tour endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in order to encourage community building and peace. It was incredible to watch! Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the sweeping ceremony or see them scoop the sand into Lake Okanagan, but I am sure it was amazing.

The mandala design chosen for the Penticton Art Gallery was the mandala of Akshobhya which represents the Unshakeable Victor for conflict resolution and peace. This was chosen as a fitting theme to close their summer exhibitions which explored Canada’s relationship and history with its First Nations community.

The Penticton Art Gallery’s completed Akshobhya mandala, September 2017. Image: Penticton Art Gallery, 2017 (https://www.facebook.com/pentictonartgallery/photos/pcb.1453948504652351/1453948464652355/?type=3&theater)

My hope with this blog post is to bring to light another aspect to destruction. Building community, learning to let go, and impeccable patience are lessons to be learned from sand mandalas. While Nepalese earthquakes and losing photographs from your iPhone are indeed tragic, perhaps these too are lessons in the fleeting ephemerality of life.

Here is a link to the Penticton Art Gallery’s Facebook page where you can see a time lapsed video of the creation and destruction of the sand mandala: https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpentictonartgallery%2Fposts%2F1456192491094619&width=500


“Drepung Loseling Monks,” Penticton Art Gallery 13 September, 2017 – 17 September, 2017. http://pentictonartgallery.com/events/2017/9/13/drepung-loseling-monks.

Thorp, Charley Linden, “Tibetan Sand Mandalas,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published on 24 April, 2017. Accessed on 24 September 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1052/tibetan-sand-mandalas/.

“The Symbolism Behind The Creation And Destruction Of The Buddhist Sand Mandala.” Published on 21 August, 2015. Accessed on 24 September 2017. https://buddhists.org/buddhist-art/the-symbolism-behind-the-creation-and-destruction-of-the-buddhist-sand-mandala/.

The Mystery of Fabritius and the Delft Gunpowder Explosion of 1654

The Delft Gunpowder Magazine Explosion on 12th October 1654 destroyed a quarter of the town of Delft, in the western Netherlands. Amongst the devastation, the studio of artist Carel Fabritius, a promising student of Rembrandt was completely obliterated, resulting in the loss of prominent paintings and the death of Fabritius himself.

Fabritius’ most well known surviving painting and one of the most iconic paintings in the world, The Goldfinch, depicts a tiny bird chained to a perch. It is renowned for its remarkable realism, and is the inspiration for the 2012 novel of the same name, by American author Donna Tartt. The painting came to Scotland for the first time last year, exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch. Photo Credit: The Scotsman

Barely a dozen of Fabritius’ paintings survive, with many claimed by the explosion. Therefore, the vast majority of knowledge we could have gained on the artist and his style is simply lost.

The explosion itself is depicted in a painting in the National Gallery, showing a town in absolute devastation. It was caused by a worker carrying a lantern attempting to inspect the town’s gunpowder store resulting in the death of hundreds of people, killed in both the explosion itself and the fire that proceeded to ravage the wooden buildings of the town. The explosion was heard as far as 150 kilometres away and was so forceful that many citizens of the town believed it to be the end of the world.

Egbert van der Poel, A View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654.                                              Photo Credit: national gallery.org.uk

We will never know the extent of the works lost by Rembrandt’s talented and mysterious pupil, as many of the records in Delft detailing his works were also lost in the explosion. Although many different paintings have been attributed to Fabritius over the centuries, each attribute has been extremely controversial in the art history world. This makes The Goldfinch even more prominent as one of the only surviving examples of his work, and unique for the time. It has also been speculated that Fabritius may have taught Vemeer, therefore bridging the gap between Rembrandt and Vemeer.

Overall, it is certain that extremely significant work was lost during the Delft gunpowder explosion. Painted in the year of his death, The Goldfinch remains one of the few examples of work we have from Fabritius, and it continues to be one of the most important paintings from that time period, as we do not have evidence as to how the painting came about or which direction Fabritius would have gone on to take with his work afterwards.









Since I was a child, I’ve spent each summer in the same tucked away spot in Italy – a hidden idyll of rural life in the commune of Monteleone di Fermo, in the Marche region. One year ago, I decided to forgo the family holiday. I was in America when news of the earthquake broke, and my first response was to call my family, who had thankfully left by that time, for news of our house. Trying to ascertain what the damage was threw into sharp relief just how remote our house is, like many in the area. When we stay there we rely on face to face communication with our neighbours, often during the daily coffee at the bar or weekly shop at the local market, meaning that we had nobody’s number to call or address to email. Finally someone at the commune let us know that there was no visible damage to our house, but that the surrounding area had suffered a lot. The scope of the damage began to sink in when I learnt this, and I thought of the church in Monsampietro Morico, where I had always dreamed as a young girl about getting married, the curiously charming bicycle museum in Montelparo, and many other centres of local life and culture, many beautiful medieval hilltop towns with equally confusing and interchangeable names. My home was mercifully far from the epicentre, but others were not so lucky.


Image result for amatrice after earthquake


On the 24th of August, 2016, the central Apennine regions of Italy were struck by a devastating earthquake. It was to be the first of two deadly earthquakes that year to ravage the area straddling the regions of Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo and Umbria, in which both Norcia and Amatrice, pictured above, were severely damaged and surrounding towns and farms were destroyed completely. 298 people were killed, and over 30,000 displaced. The clock tower in Amatrice, which dates back the the thirteenth century, still stands amidst the surrounding rubble poignantly stopped at 3.39 am, three minutes past the time the earthquake hit. After the quake, Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini reported that at least 295 cultural heritage sites had been damaged or destroyed. Most of these were small village churches, icons of rural identity and centres of life in the villages and towns in that region. Art and architecture was damaged beyond repair, as in the Basilica di San Francesco, pictured below, which contained several fifteenth century frescoes. Yet more artwork from churches in surrounding villages had to be rescued and moved into warehouse storage in Ascoli Piceno, hidden away from the public eye.

Image result for san francesco church amatrice
Firefighters recover a religious painting from a damaged church in the village of Rio, some 10 kms from the central Italian village of Amatrice, on August 28, 2016. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
Firefighters recover a religious painting from a damaged church in the village of Rio, some 10 kms from the central Italian village of Amatrice, on August 28, 2016. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Image

So much of the area’s art and architecture was destroyed, and locals still fear their ‘historic towns will never look the same again’. One issue with restoring these towns and villages is that the area is famous for the type of stone used in its buildings, it is part of their regional identity. However, this stone is not very resistant to earthquakes. This brings up a dilemma: the state cannot in good conscience rebuild the houses from the same material, or what can be salvaged of it, but if they use more modern and sturdy materials, they risk losing a distinctive historical characteristic. In an interview with the Guardian, Cecilia Anes, a journalist from Umbria explains this, saying that ‘the consequence of rebuilding everything in a modern way, using wood or concrete, means we won’t have historical centres anymore, which are the soul of Umbria and Marche. It’s a very confusing moment.’It is clearly a time where the cultural identity of the area has been forced into upheaval and unwelcome change. Anes adds that the houses could be rebuilt using the old stone, reinforced by concrete, but that this is very expensive. Added to these financial constraints, the government needed to physically house those displaced by the disaster as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, as Anes says, ‘the decision seems to be between quickly creating new homes or saving heritage’.  

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that Italy suffers destruction like this. In 1883, a massive earthquake in Ischia prompted the government of the newly unified Italy to issue the first national codes for antiseismic prevention. How then, can the country learn from these disasters? A lot of people blame the burdensome administrative procedures for the failure of the government to restore quake-stricken areas. Perhaps this is true, but there are many groups and individuals that have come up with innovative and, perhaps more successful ways of healing the affected communities. A great example of this is the work that the Italian Institute of Permaculture has put into motion. Their relief project focuses on the people’s connection to their land and the cultural heritage tied to it and attempts to reconnect people who have been displaced to this land as a means of regional identity. They take issue with the State’s response to the quake, saying it doesn’t take into account that many don’t want to leave their homes and farms, even if the structures are severely damaged.The standard State response is to move everyone to basecamps far from their homes, leaving all that is deemed as unnecessary such as vegetable gardens, orchards and livestock. Their project uses an interdisciplinary approach that recognises the complex needs of the local population, with expert architects, engineers, and farmers among the group.


Image result for l'aquila 2017
La Republica.it


All I can say is that a new approach is needed to find a way of restoring these areas and the inhabitants’ sense of connection to their local history and culture that does not revolve around the historic buildings themselves. It seems a tragic fact, but a fact all the same, that many of these will never be rebuilt. Eight years after being devastated by an earthquake that killed more than 300 people, L‘Aquila’s  abandoned city centre is a stark reminder of the struggle facing Italian towns hit by quakes (see above).One year on, less than a tenth of the rubble has been removed from the streets of Amatrice, and many of the smaller villages with ageing populations will perhaps never be inhabited again.The EU Solidarity Fund estimated that the Italian government will need 1.2 bn Euros to conduct emergency restoration alone. When faced with these earthquakes and a lack of financial resources time and time again the Italian people will be forced to come up with new ways to create resilient systems against future disasters.







Who Gains From Destruction?

There is a long history of smuggling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; but until recently it was mostly furniture, antique household items, intricately detailed pieces, and other goods found in old houses across the Syrian border that littered the shelves of antique shops. It was common and reliable source of income for antique dealers and high end tourist shops. Now items like a hand-crafted chest of drawers goes for only a few hundred dollars.

This price dip is due to the fact that the market is being flooded with even more priceless items: artifacts looted from ancient Syrian sites like the 1st century Roman settlement of Apameia, Palmyra, and Dura Europos. In the chaos of war looting and smuggling of these ancient sites at the birthplace of civilization goes unchecked.

And who exactly is benefiting from this carnage?

There are the traditional antiques dealers, like those in Bekaa Valley, who boast to tourists that they can get you anything. There are families desperate enough to sell their own heirlooms and antiques, anything to survive. And then there are the soldiers.

Almost as soon as the conflict in Syria began, both soldiers of the regime and opposition rebels began to turn a profit from smuggling. But it was the so-called-Islamic State that really revolutionized the business. In places like Dura Europos, a city dating from 300 BC, IS has taxed the sale of antiques by private dealers, employed their own laborers, and used it’s own machinery to turn a practice of backroom deals into a multi-million dollar industry. IS claims that their interpretation of Islamic law induces their destruction of idols from ancient cultures, but, although it is difficult to gauge the exact amount gained by smuggling, it is hard to ignore the fact that it is a highly profitable practice for IS. Whether it was done for profit or for ideological claims, 70% of Dura Europos was destroyed by 2015. Archaeologists had only begun to scratch the surface of this ancient and untouched city before fighting broke out and now whatever information the city held is gone forever.

This link shows the destruction to Dura Europos between 2011 and 2014: Dura Europos

The cultural and heritage community have taken this as really blow and there are several international movements aimed at collecting, preserving, and protecting remaining artifacts and sites. The British Museum, for example, claims to be “guarding” certain artifacts which it has promised to return when it deems the cultural climate safe and stable again. This is a laudable act but it has also lead some to be concerned about looting of a different kind. Will artifacts really be returned to their homelands when the war is over, or will foreign museums retain them for “safe keeping”?

Luckily, there are local movements on the ground to preserve the rich history of the area. In a wonderful move of retaliation against IS, Iraq’s National Museum reopened in 2015 after 12 years of closure. In fact, the reopening was moved up after museum officials saw an IS video of extremists smashing artifacts and ancient statues in Mosul.

When asked why sure efforts are being made to save relics and artifacts and cultural sites when so many people are dying, Nada Hassen from UNESCO pointed out that when the conflict ends, it will be the heritage, culture, and history national identity and unity are drawn from; they will be the things people turn to when rebuilding.

Via Satellite, Tracking the Plumber of Middle East Cultural History; March 10, 2015; http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/03/10/392077801/via-satellite-tracking-the-plunder-of-middle-east-cultural-history
ISIS Video Shows Extremists Smashing Priceless Artifacts; February 26, 2015; http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/02/26/389256954/isis-video-shows-extremists-smashing-priceless-artifacts
Iraq’s National Museum To Open For First Time Since 2003 Invasion; February 28, 2015; http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/02/28/389779293/iraqs-national-museum-to-open-for-first-time-since-2003-invasion
British Museum ‘Guarding’ Object Looted From Syria; June 5, 2015; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-33020199
Smugglers Thrive on Syria’s Chaos, Looting Cultural Treasures; May 27, 2014; http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/05/27/316329859/smugglers-thrive-on-syrias-chaos-looting-cultural-treasures
Story Map Swipe and Spyglass; http://aaas-gthr.maps.arcgis.com/apps/StorytellingSwipe/index.html?appid=bea82b4b7955461fa424854d273d2450#

Shifting Tectonic Plates

There is a problem with living on a fault-line, even if you have avoided disaster for many years, there is always the possibility that something is going to go happen. On the 25th of April 2015 Nepal was struck by a massive earthquake that devastated the country. Beyond the terrible loss of life, and infrastructure that hurt the poorest citizens most, it was devastating to the natural and cultural heritage of the nation.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor
Durbar Square before (Photo – Philip Klassen-Rempel)

Years before the earthquake struck, I had the ability to visit Nepal with my brother, and while we did a lot of hiking through the mountains, we also visited many of the cultural heritage sites in and around Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Since Nepal is a Hindu and Buddhist nation there are many temples and shrines throughout both the city of Kathmandu, as well as the mountains. In many cases these temples have been there for several centuries. In some cases they have been there for more than a thousand years. This is the reason that there are several UNESCO world heritage sites in the city of Kathmandu alone. In the centre of Kathmandu stands what was a beautiful square. Known as the Durbar Square of Hanuman Dhoka, this square was filled with wooden, mud and clay buildings with terracotta roofs. This complex included palaces, temples and markets and included the oldest Buddhist monument in the valley. These monuments and structures were covered in a variety of carvings, statues, paintings and gilded brass ornamentation. It was a wonder to behold.

Remains of the temples in Patan Durbar Square reduced to rubble by the earthquake
Durbar Square after (Photo – Omar Havana for Getty Images)

After the earthquake the complex was decimated. The images are shocking. I took the first image when I visited in January 2008, and the second one was taken by Omar Havana for Getty images, and used in an article of before and after pictures by the Guardian shortly after the earthquake. This loss is not only terrible for the country of Nepal, but for the world, and there was little anyone could have done to prevent it. No matter what we do, we are at the whims of shifting tectonic plates, and we watched as they took down buildings that had stood strong in some cases for 600-700 years.

Since this site is a UNESCO heritage site I know that it will continue to be protected, because of their mandate. They want to protect any site they have deemed of importance, and so they will rebuild, reopen and continue to protect what remains, but what happens to all the buildings that are not protected? I think this is a question to bear in mind,  but in the end, I know that I was lucky to be able to see these buildings in their glory, and will cherish that.


Kathmandu, Nepal, before and after the earthquake – In pictures; 29 April, 2015; https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/apr/29/nepal-earthquake-kathmandu-before-and-after-in-pictures 

Kathmandu Pictures; January 2008; Philip Klassen-Rempel

Kathmandu Valley; Last updated 2017; http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/121 

Nepal’s museums reopening post earthquake; Friday, 5 August 2016; http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1537