Cultural Policy Center, Smithsonian co-host workshop on cultural heritage protection

Last month, researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathered in Washington, D.C. to explore how to preserve culture in the age of ISIS and other threats. The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center and the Smithsonian Institution convened the group of experts on cultural heritage protection.

Speaking at the workshop, U.S. Army archaeologist Laurie Rush said, for U.S. soldiers, protecting cultural heritage isn't only focused on official repositories for artifacts, such as a museum. Sometimes their assignments take them to places far from city centers.

To outsiders, the pomegranate orchard in a tiny village in the remotest reaches of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province wouldn’t look like anything special. But the U.S. soldiers approaching the orchard noticed that the walls around it were painted blue, an indication that they surrounded something sacred. It turned out that the courtyard held a shrine containing a dagger once carried by a friend of the prophet Mohammed and was a site of weekly pilgrimage for villagers from the entire region.

“Is this going to be on any list of world heritage sites? No,” said Rush. But, she added, sparing cultural property from destruction goes beyond safety precautions for soldiers. “It offers a form of stability that helps communities in conflict recover in the long run.”

“Cultural heritage has become very contentious in situations of conflict,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for history, art and culture. “But cultural heritage can also be used to help bring people together.” This was the inspiration for the daylong workshop and public event that sought to identify research needs as well as intersections for interdisciplinary collaboration in this critical cultural policy area.

Protecting cultural heritage during war is an important priority. The United States is a party to the 1954 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. That doesn’t mean a commander can protect cultural property if doing so is not a military priority, said Rush. But, she added, “the better prepared our soldiers are in terms of their ability to identify and respect cultural property, the more likely they are going to come home safe and sound.”   

Fulfilling the goals of the 1954 convention requires partnership between the military and academia, said Rush, a board member of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit, non-government organization dedicated to the prevention of destruction and theft of cultural property during conflict.

She urged academics not to share privileged information, noting that comments by scholars about the use of satellite imagery to assess whether or not ISIS was destroying cultural property actually pushed the extremists to destroy what they had previously only pretended to destroy.

“And don’t perpetuate myths, Rush continued. Take the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example. Even among scholars, said Rush, there’s a common misunderstanding that the Buddhas were destroyed because they had human faces. “In actuality they were destroyed to demoralize the Hazara people of the Bamiyan valley,” she said, explaining that the Taliban paid engineers to ensure the empty niches remained standing.

Another major threat is looting of objects from archeological sites for economic gain, said Patty Gerstenblith, distinguished research professor of law who also directs the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University. “When something is undocumented and removed from that context, then knowledge, culture and history about the world and ourselves are all lost,” she said.

Unfortunately, said Gerstenblith, the U.S. government’s current approach to looting, which emphasizes identifying objects at the border and returning them to their homelands, is not enough. The government will never catch even a large percentage of the looted objects crossing U.S. borders, said Gerstenblith. And while seizing objects at the border and returning them to their owners helps other countries, she said, these “feel-good photo opportunities” do nothing to stop the next looting. “Picking up something at the border is a failure, not a success,” she emphasized.

Instead of this “catch and release” approach, said Gerstenblith, the government should focus on criminal prosecution and the dismantling of criminal networks. She also called for greater coordination of efforts, whether it’s analyzing satellite imagery or developing “no-strike” lists for use in military conflicts.

It’s not just physical objects and sites that deserve protection, added Michael Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is also critically important, although its protection is lagging behind that of tangible cultural heritage.

Intangible cultural heritage often becomes a target in wartime. Syria is just one example, said Mason. “What we’re seeing with the absolute transformation of places like Aleppo is the erasure of a way of being that was tolerant,” he said. “That’s enormously threatening to a global community interested in sustaining difference and respecting our diverse histories.”

While intangible cultural heritage can contribute to divisiveness, it also can strengthen social bonds. For example, UNESCO has declared the castells, or human towers built by Catalans to celebrate their unity, one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Storytelling, whether as part of a truth and reconciliation process or after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, also can aid recovery.

In another panel open to the public, University of Chicago Trustee David Rubenstein, a Smithsonian Regent and cofounder of the Carlyle Group, addressed the ways in which citizens can take action to protect cultural heritage. “What can a citizen do to actually have some impact on this problem?” Rubenstein asked.

UNESCO information officer George PapaGiannis replied: “It begins with making your voice heard, especially in the United States.” Citizens could raise awareness of the importance of protection of cultural heritage by writing to local newspapers or joining UNESCO’s #unite4heritage Twitter campaign. They also could push elected officials to provide adequate resources that fund preventative measures.

Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute and professor of near eastern archeology, said it’s important to get beyond a reactive position by training people and developing infrastructure for protecting cultural heritage in the countries most affected by warfare.

“Education is the key to engaging citizens in protecting their own heritage,” said Stein, noting that staff at the Baghdad Museum and National Museum of Afghanistan have risked their lives to safeguard cultural treasures. “In the long run, that’s going to probably do more to protect heritage than anything else.”