The other day we took the metro down to the Institut du monde arabe (IMA), which is located in a beautiful silve building in the 5e arrondissement, right along the Seine behind the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and not too far from the Jardins des Plantes and its fun Ménagerie (yes, we said hello to the red pandas and wallabies on the way).
The IMA is currently hosting an exhibit called Cités millénaires (Age-Old Cities), a collaboration with the French startup Iconem, whose representatives we met a few weeks ago at Unesco during the European Heritage Days. Iconem specializes in digitizing and creating 3D models of heritage sites and monuments that are either at risk of being destroyed, or else hard to access.
The exhibit at the IMA is in fact an immersive experience with gigantic projections and contextualizing videos, focused around four sites: Mosul, Aleppo, Leptis Magna (a Roman site in Lybia), and Palmyra. Although I found that the exhibition lacked a little bit of context and explanations (I don’t mind going to the museum to read some panels) or even voiceovers, overall the giant projections with smoothly panning 3D models and atmospheric music were absolutely breathtaking. I even had some shivers, especially seeing the famous theatre and temples of Palmyra, which were the stage of so many horrors during its takeover by the so-called Islamic State. It was also amazing to witness the scale of the destruction in Aleppo and Mosul.
The exhibit ends with a short VR experience, created by video game studio Ubisoft, that allows you to experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of six specific monuments as if you were really there. We were told that the exhibit gets busy and the lineup for the VR can go up to an hour, but we went first thing in the morning (and bought our tickets in advance)–we were sometimes alone in the exhibition rooms, and we didn’t wait at all for the VR experience, which felt a little short but was really immersive. I especially enjoyed being inside the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, which soldiers of ISIL blew up in 2015.
Overall, we had a great time and really appreciated the work of Iconem has been doing to document these sites and monuments. Is it enough? No, of course not. But at least it’s something, and it allows researchers to study and record sites that might otherwise be lost before they were documented. The exhibit also does a pretty good job of addressing not only the loss of buildings and monuments, but also the human lives that have ended or been shattered. A text accompanying images of the Souk of Aleppo, for example, reminds us that beyond the material loss, what made the souk itself was the relationships between the stall owners and the shoppers who went there ever day.
I also enjoyed the very well stocked bookstore at the IMA, which has an impressive selection of books related to the Middle East–contemporary novels, books in translation and in Arabic, academic works, cookbooks… We walked away with a small phrasebook to refresh our Egyptian Arabic, and plans to come back very soon.
The Cités millénaires exhibit runs at the IMA in Paris until February 10, 2019.