Age Old Cities: A Virtual Journey

Palmyra's theatre reconstructed
A 3D reconstruction of Palmyra’s theatre / image: Alexandra Hay

Age Old Cities: A Virtual Journey from Palmyra to Mosul
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC
January 25 – October 25, 2020

Age Old Cities is a striking exhibit that opened this weekend in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. It recreates sites in Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq through extraordinarily detailed documentation of their current state and 3D reconstructions projected on the gallery walls.

While the “magic of technology,” as described in the wall text at the exhibit’s entry, may sound over-dramatic, the large-scale visuals and their immersive presentation are arresting. A blend of archival materials, drone imagery, and photogrammetry capture—the same technology used in the 2019 ASLA Award-winning project Artful Technology Methods for Communicating Non-Standard Construction Materials to digitally scan landscape boulders, and for other applications within the fields of landscape architecture historic preservation—allowed for the creation of profoundly affecting visual restorations that transport the viewer.

Though not a very large exhibit, it is nonetheless haunting. Amidst fires, earthquakes, the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis, and continuous news of turmoil around the world, one can feel inured to destruction. The immersive, cinematic presentation of these ancient sites—devoid of people in the digital reconstructions, though clearly implicitly present as the source of the devastation—re-sharpens focus on what has been lost. One keenly feels the absence left by these layers having been scraped from the palimpsest.

The exhibition was created by the Arab World Institute, Paris, in collaboration with Iconem and in partnership with UNESCO and Ubisoft, with support from the University of Lausanne and L’Œuvre d’Orient.

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