The Destruction of Memory – Robert Bevan on architecture and cultural heritage

The Destruction of Memory is a documentary film based off the book of the same name first published by architectural historian and journalist Robert Bevan in 2006.
 Receiving its UK Premiere at the British Museum as part of London Festival of Architecture on 26 June, Robert Bevan talks below of the content and political context of both the film and book in 2016.

“Tim Slade’s powerful documentary is based on a book I wrote more than 15 years ago now and that was first published in 2006.

At the time the book felt like a rather esoteric project: The targeting of cultural heritage in conflicts was not a topic much discussed by a wider public.

When I talked to them about the bombing of buildings – from everyday houses to treasured monuments – people tended to assume I was talking about collateral damage – the architecture that got in the way of armies fighting.

That’s not what the book and this film is about. It is about calculated destruction. Not collateral damage but conflicts where architecture is a target, a weapon of war  — not only during but in the manner of rebuilding afterwards – which can sometimes be as problematic as the destruction itself.


A soldier patrols in front of Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu. Image by Francois Rihouay from ‘The Destruction of Memory’ © Vast Productions USA 2016

When, during the Bosnian War the Serbian nationalist Mayor of Zvornik in Bosnia was asked what had happened to the mosques and Muslims of his town he claimed “there never were any mosques in Zvornik.” All evidence of their centuries of presence in the town had been removed – people and places. Or at least this had been attempted.

It seems so obvious now that there is a vital connection between the fate of a people and the fate of their culture: The destruction of architecture, of a group’s material culture, can be genocidal in intent. The concept of cultural genocide was first developed by Raphael Lemkin who went on to frame the Genocide Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust but it was not included in the Convention and was subsequently forgotten.

These days, sadly, people understand the theme of the film immediately. They don’t need it explaining. Indeed the issue seems to be ever present. The film brings matters up to date in examining the actions of ISIS/Da’esh and foregrounds the need to revisit Lemkin and the idea of cultural genocide and to make explicit, once and for all, the links between human rights and heritage.”

Robert Bevan is a writer, editor and consultant.

The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, by Robert Bevan, is available to order from publisher Reaktion Books and all good bookshops.

The Destruction of Memory: Special Screening and Q&A
26 June, 14:00 – 16:00
The British Museum, Great Russell Street
For further information and to book click here.