Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What do they think they are doing?

I’m sure most folks are at least somewhat familiar with the recent flurry of articles about the team that is considering reconstructing one or both of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afganistan.  If not, the Buddhas were carved into the side of a hill around 1500 years ago, and over the years it appears that they were painted different vibrant colors. About ten years ago the Taliban blew up the Buddhas. Now a group is suggesting at least one of the statues can be reconstructed with the original pieces.

And my question is – what do they think they are doing (or wanting to do)? I don’t ask that because I think they shouldn’t try to reconstruct the statues – I don’t think I have any opinions on that – but I’m curious what the people involved would perceive reconstructing the statues from pieces of the original would accomplish. What would the finished product be? Would it be the original? Well, no, but it seems that the desire to use pieces from the original would give it a greater air of authenticity. What function would a recreated original have? Whereas the original was likely created as a religious expression I don’t get the sense that religious impulses are what is motivating the current group. Would it be an act and artifact of defiance against religious/cultural intolerance?

I’ve been trying to think of what would be a comparable experience in the library/book world and I’m struggling to find a comparison. I think this is in large part because libraries mostly house things of which there are multiple copies. Burn one copy of “Fahrenheit  451” and there are many copies to replace it. Also, the purpose of a book is largely held within the text and changing the housing of that text plays little (but not no) impact on the understanding of that text.  One possible comparison might be reassembling a pile of papyrus scraps  - but if those scraps were eventually reassembled into their original layout, it still seems to me that that final construction would be different in character than the reassembled Buddhas – once again, because the purpose of the papyrus largely lies in the meaning derived from the text, and not the form of the object.

It also raises the questions of what to do with sites/symbols/artifacts of tragedies. When is preserving evidence of the tragedy more important than creating something new?

These kinds of questions don't have much reason to be asked in the library world, so I haven't spent much time with them and don't have much of a response.

So, once again, I am not passing any judgement on whether the Buddhas should be constructed with or without the original pieces, but I am really curious to know what those who are pondering this, think they are doing? (I'm sure I'll know the answer when I finally get around to reading The Past is a Foreign Country.)

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! I actually wonder not "what" were they thinking, but "were" they thinking? I honestly think too often we (as a society) ask the question "can we do x?" when what we probably need to ask is "should we do x?".

    I think you raise a really important issue in the idea of the purpose of the statues, they originally served a specific purpose for a specific community. A community that essentially no longer exists, so with that in mind for whom is this reconstruction being considered now that the statues no longer serve their intended purpose? And therefore what is the purpose of this project?

    Also, the idea of burning Fahrenheit 451 did make me laugh, I do love that book, I guess that's a common library joke.

    Cheers, Dan