When Artwork Survives Catastrophe

From 9/11 to Islamic State pillaging, historical events literally shaped these artworks.

by Kara Weisenstein
11 September 2016, 12:10pm

New York, N.Y., September 21, 2001 — Rescue crews work to clear debris from the site of the World Trade Center. Photo by Michael Rieger/ FEMA News Poto - Location: New York, NY Photo via

Fifteen years after surviving the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Fritz Koenig’s bronze Sphere for Plaza Fountain is returning to the World Trade Center site this year. The sculpture, which remained standing as buildings crashed to the earth around it, is a monument to resilience and remembrance. Koenig’s work acquired a patina of history. Scarred, scorched, and dented, it is still beautiful, reminding people to “never forget.” 

Many enduring works of art resonate because of their survival, their past imbuing them with meaning beyond the artist’s intent. Sculptures from the Bronze Age exist today primarily because they weathered disasters. “If one knows the history, say that a statue was on a ship carrying bronze as scrap, and that it survives only because the ship sank before reaching the furnace, that adds extra poignancy. As does knowledge that it comes from, say, Pompeii or Herculaneum, where Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, paradoxically destroying and preserving those cities,” says Dr. Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum.

Installation view of two statues of Apollo (courtesy of Musée du Louvre and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompeii, Ercolano e Stabia) in “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World.” Photo via

Countless works of art disappeared throughout millennia. “A monument like the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis is today a hollow shell of what it once was. The temple was emptied of its treasures in late antiquity, converted into a church, then a mosque, and then blown up during the siege of Athens in 1687. What we have today are the remains of a long historical process,” Dr. Lapatin says.

“When you’re an archaeologist or conservator, that’s what you see when you look at these works. You see history a certain way, essentially inscribed in them,” archaeologist Dr. Michael D. Danti tells The Creators Project. Art besieged throughout the centuries is once again under attack throughout the Middle East, however, and Dr. Danti is part of a task force striving to protect cultural sites in Iraq and Syria in partnership with the U.S. Department of State.

Destruction of the Baalshamin Temple (ISIL social media; August 24, 2015) Photo via

“When the Palmyra museum was threatened by the invasion of the Islamic State, Syrian antiquities workers spent three days loading trucks to get the material to a safe location, but a lot of stuff was immobile and had to be left behind, including mummies. When ISIS invaded, they immediately began destroying or stealing artifacts, and antiquities workers were killed during that evacuation. They risked a lot to do that,” Dr. Danti says. He describes these men and women as modern day Monuments Men, comparing them to Allied soldiers fighting to save art from the Nazis during WWII.

TriumphalArch in Palmyra (Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums; January 15, 2013) photo via

Terrorist factions in the Middle East routinely target cultural heritage sites, a practice of cultural cleansing Dr. Danti calls a form of genocide. “We believe that cultural rights are fundamental. Access to heritage and the right to participate in culture is a universal right,” he says. “What troubles me most is the potential for a complete break with the past. Whole landscapes are being reshaped and that changes your perception of the past and the way cultural memory is encoded and interpreted.” Restitution efforts from WWII continue today, and Dr. Danti says repairing damage in the Middle East is a Sisyphean task, considering the factors at play. “What’s the future of that monument? Who should rebuild it? Who has the right to rebuild it? Who should pay for rebuilding? And if it’s rebuilt what does it mean?” he asks.

As in the case of Koenig’s sphere, when art is spared, it becomes a powerful vessel for history. “I believe we’re constantly being shaped by and reinterpreting these things,” Dr. Danti says. “The World Trade Center is a perfect example. People bring expectations, they experience the site, and are changed. Over time perceptions are transformed, just as the site itself is transformed again and again and again.”

Temple of Bel (Michael Danti; 2010) Photo via

You can read reports about the status of historical monuments in the Middle East here, courtesy of Michael Danti’s team at ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives. BBC Radio 4 also produces Museum of Lost Objects, a podcast tracing the stories of antiquities and cultural sites destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria.


Artist Fills Gallery with Rescued Animals and Debris from Syria

To Fight ISIS, Art Dealers & Archaeologists Join Forces

Images of Tainted Water Make Art from Eco Disaster

middle east
World Trade Center
art history
bronze age
Fritz Koenig
Getty Museum
Sphere for Plaza Fountain