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Timely, topical and perfect for TV. The annual BRIHC Series kicked off on 2 May 2018 with fifty people from across the university and beyond gathering for an interactive workshop that designed and pitched a major series on historical iconoclasm to a panel of major media industry figures. 

The Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures (BRIHC) kicked off its Big Game Summer Series with its first event on Iconoclasm and Graffiti. The workshop was organised around the premise of developing ideas for a BBC documentary, focusing on the general themes of the use of iconoclasm and graffiti as political and social influencing tools, the invention of memory, and ideas of ruins and romanticism.

Poster for Big Game - Iconocasm/Graffiti

The workshop started with initial introductions from Richard Clay (Newcastle University) and Neville Bolt (King’s College London) who raised interesting points of discussion around graffiti and the creation in memory in unpredictable events. It was stated that in such events, graffiti is actively in conversation with other influences that are contesting space, and it is particularly interesting to examine how these different influences are broadcast and disseminated beyond the borders of the state, as seen in the case of the 2011 Arab Spring. Stacy Boldrick (University of Leicester) then discussed the long history of destroying and defacing to produce or polarise and to produce, using examples ranging from the destruction of statues in Yorkshire Churches in the 1500s, which are now proudly displayed, to contemporary art that is being created using destruction to be deliberately defaced.

Next, Henry Chapman spoke about restoration in the context of memory studies, and ideas around creating myths. He suggested that remembering one thing is forgetting something else, and questioned how we choose which memories we focus on in historical narratives. Similarly, Dan Reynolds (Birmingham) then went on to discuss ideas surrounding our ‘Urge to Restore’ sites such as Palmyra. He prompted us to think about which sites we think need restoration, how do we rebuild, is reconstruction really what Syria needs right now, and why is there such an obsession with Palmyra? He observed that in discussions about the restoration of Palmyra, dialogues are primarily coming from Europe, the US and government bodies, and there is a lack of discussion with the Arabic speaking world or Syrians. Instead, despite the fact that over 13,000 mosques have been destroyed since 2013, the focus of attention in terms of restoration seems to be on other sites such as Byzantium churches, roman sites and crusader castles, as opposed to the Islamic mosques that are still used and relevant to Syrians today. The discussion was thus ended by questioning, whose memory are we attempting to preserve? And how then, can we actively challenge the dominant value systems of restoration.

The audience then heard from Russell Barnes (Clearstory Production Co) who provided insight into how to pitch a television show, stressing the importance of grabbing attention with surprise, or a crazy way in, as well as justifying the need for such a television show now. Cassian Harrison (BBC4) then spoke further on producing successful television shows and commented that people love a ruin, or a destroyed thing, and so iconoclasm was a fascinating subject to consider. He noted that there are two main rules to pitching; firstly, to identify the need and who is the audience, and secondly, to explain what is the problem you are gong to fill. A programme should typically follow the format of an arch, beginning with disruption, then chaos and complication, but ending with closure.

With this in mind, participants then split into 3 breakout groups. In a group lead by Dr. Neville Bolt and Dr. Richard Clay, we discussed a vast array of things, ranging from nuclear weapons – the ultimate form of iconoclasm? – to charms in Sierra Leone, the 2011 Arab Spring and the Israeli West Bank wall. The group explored the ways in which iconoclasm is heavily about ways of seeing, different perspectives, and also has a strong element of performativity.

The workshop closed with the three groups coming together to pitch our initial ideas. The first group, led by Stacy Boldrick suggested a focus on the head, exploring the ways the head can be the object of iconoclastic violence such as beheading, or destroying the heads of statues. The second group, led by Dan Reynolds and Henry Chapman further examined Palmyra and the ‘invention of an icon’. Their pitch examined how the archaeologist and the historian contribute to conservation and the invention of specific memory. They questioned why do we choose to remember certain things? And finally, the last group led by Richard Clay and Neville Bolt focused on the 2011 Arab Spring, and in particular the Egyptian ‘revolution’ which was termed a so-called ‘Facebook Revolution’ in Western media.  This pitch also considered the idea of a television show about doing something, in this case an iconoclastic act, and suggested the show could follow the impacts and consequences of such an act.

The workshop concluded with fascinating observations about the impact of iconoclasm in the contemporary world, and the importance of understanding the creation of historical memory and how this continues to shape our lives.

By Rose Parkinson, BRIHC MA Global History Scholar 

This event formed part of the BRIHC Summer Series 2018 which runs until 13 June 2018.