The University of Newcastle, Australia

Dwyer gives public lecture on Broken Bones, Broken Stones: Iconoclasm in World History

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Professor Philip Dwyer, Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence gave a public lecture at Trinity College Dublin, as part of the 'Out of the Ashes' Lecture Series.

Philip Dwyer

Titled 'Broken Bones, Broken Stones: Iconoclasm in World History' Dwyer discussed the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 and how it brought the question of iconoclasm and cultural heritage into stark relief for the first time in many years.

"The Taliban were portrayed as “barbarians” and “vandals”, but their act of destruction is part of a very long history of violence committed by people either bent on overthrowing the existing order – revolution – or erasing the past – a form of cultural cleansing. Sometimes the destruction even involves the physical remains of former kings, saints and political opponents," Dwyer said.

"While we have a good understanding of what iconoclasm is, we do not necessarily understand the iconoclasts themselves. Why do people feel compelled to destroy images that offend their religious or political sensibilities? Can any meaningful comparisons be drawn between, say, sixteenth-century Protestants and contemporary Islamicists destroying what they consider to be ‘false idols’? What connects the image-breakers across time? What do we lose by ‘purifying’ the past?"

Drawing on a wide variety of examples that range from ancient Egypt through to contemporary debates about the removal of modern political and military icons, Dwyer presents iconoclasm as both a religious and a political act that cuts across time and historical boundaries.

"Iconoclasm as an act of forgetting can tell us a great deal about how we prefer to remember the past, and what kind of societies we want to build in the future. As a form of violence, one that has existed throughout recorded history, it is central to understanding humanity’s cultural legacy."

The lecture is part of the 'Out of the Ashes' three-year lecture series which explores the theme of cultural loss and recovery across the centuries, from the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in antiquity to contemporary acts of cultural loss and destruction.

A panel of world-leading experts reflects on how societies deal with cultural trauma through reconstruction and commemoration, and on how the international community should respond to cultural loss.

The lecture was on Monday, 9 March 2020, at Trinity College Dublin, in the Trinity Long Room Hub.


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