Smithsonian and Penn Cultural Heritage Center Organize Emergency Workshop and Training Program to Safeguard Syrian Cultural HeritageAugust 20th, 2014
August 14, 2014
Syria’s four-year civil war has led to the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage at an unprecedented rate. World Heritage sites, such as Krak des Chevaliers and the city of Aleppo, medieval Christian cemeteries and other archaeological sites and museums have been subjected to extensive raiding and looting.
To help protect these and other Syrian treasures, the Smithsonian and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum), in cooperation with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are working to offer assistance for museum curators, heritage experts and civilians working to protect cultural heritage inside Syria.
In late June, the organizations held a three-day training program, “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections,” which focused on safeguarding high-risk collections. The program offered information on how to secure museum collections safely during emergencies, provided participants with basic supplies for packing and securing museum collections and began a dialogue among Syrian participants about emergency responses. The training was funded by the Smithsonian and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.
The program was facilitated by Corine Wegener, the Smithsonian’s cultural heritage preservation officer, Robert Patterson, an exhibits specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and Brian Daniels, director of research and programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum.
“The toll of the civil war on the people of Syria has been devastating, and international attention has rightly been focused on getting the country’s citizens the aid they need,” said Wegener. “But the country’s rich cultural heritage is also in danger, and workshops like these allow us to assist the professionals and activists who are on the ground caring for damaged and at-risk collections.”
About 20 people from several Syrian provinces attended the training. Workshop leaders were joined by Syrian scholars Salam Al Kuntar, a lecturer from the University of Pennsylvania, Amr Al Azm, chair of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force and associate professor at Shawnee State University, and Ali Othman, a researcher at the University of Paris. Technical assistance for the program was provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace and The Day After Association, a Syrian-led civil society nongovernmental organization.
“While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage,” said Daniels. “This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.”
June’s emergency training program was a critical first step. The Smithsonian, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with the cooperation of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are preparing to launch an extensive new project, which will document current conditions and future preservation needs and track and report intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.
About the Smithsonian
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. There are 6,500 Smithsonian employees and 6,300 volunteers. There were 30 million visits to the Smithsonian in 2013. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 137 million, including more than 126 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History.
About the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum
Dedicated to supporting cultural heritage initiatives, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center brings considerable experience in training, capacity building and basic research about cultural heritage and cultural policy. It has led several projects in conjunction with the U.S. government, including a research partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Mission to UNESCO to increase the empirical information known about the World Heritage program as it exists in the United States and abroad. PennCHC’s capabilities are enhanced by the world-class archaeological and anthropological faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and the curators of the Penn Museum.
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June 17, 2014
PROTECTION OF IRAQI CULTURAL HERITAGE SITES
Blue Shield is appalled by the great suffering and loss of life in the current fighting in Iraq and expresses great concern about the safety of Iraq’s invaluable cultural and historical heritage.
Blue Shield urges all armed combatants to observe the international laws that protect cultural heritage and to act responsibly, safeguarding the testimony of Iraq’s unique history for the enrichment of future generations.
Iraq is home to some of the world’s oldest and most significant archaeological and cultural sites. Iraq has three UNESCO World Heritage sites and twelve tentative World Heritage sites. Iraq’s museums, particularly the national museum in Baghdad and the regional museum in Mosul, are repositories for countless irreplaceable artifacts that record this unique history.
In the event of international military action, Blue Shield calls on any participating countries to be mindful of obligations under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols; the 1972 UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage; the additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions; and customary international law to avoid targeting cultural heritage sites and repositories and to minimize collateral damage to cultural heritage wherever possible.
Iraq ratified the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol in 1967, thereby acknowledging and committing to the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in the case of armed conflict. Blue Shield urges the international community to help Iraq fulfill its obligations to this Convention and also urges all parties to the conflict to abide by Iraq’s Antiquities Law, Law Number 55 of 2002.
Blue Shield is concerned that archaeological and cultural objects may be removed from museums, libraries, archives, and archaeological sites and placed on the illegal international art market. The actions of all governments in preserving this heritage should be consistent with the terms and spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, of which there are 127 States Parties. Blue Shield implores auction houses and other art outlets to ensure that no illegally exported material is sold.
Blue Shield is the protective emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention, the basic international treaty formulating rules to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict. The Blue Shield network consists of organizations dealing with museums, archives, libraries, monuments and sites.
The Blue Shield’s mission is to work to protect the world’s cultural heritage threatened by armed conflict, natural and human-made disasters. For this reason, it places the expertise and network of its member organis
ations at the disposal of colleagues working in Iraq to support their actions in protecting the country’s heritage, and if necessary, in assessing subsequent recovery, restoration, and repair measures.Website:
Email/Contact: Nancy C. Wilkie, President, US Committee of the Blue Shield email@example.com
In honor of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Hague Convention the Netherlands UNESCO organized “Culture under Attack: Photo exhibition on cultural heritage and armed conflict”. Some of the photos may be seen at http://www.cultureunderattack.
PLAN TO ATTEND!!!
The US Committee of the Blue Shield Meeting will be co-hosted by USCBS and the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Smithsonian Institution on Friday, Sept 19th, Washington, DC. JOIN US and help celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Hague Convention. Details to follow! Follow us on Facebook at U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield https://www.
February 6, 2014, 5:00 am
BANGUI, Central African Republic — Bangui has been a looters’ paradise for weeks now. Despite French and African Union peacekeepers, Christians have gone on a rampage burning Muslim homes and businesses in revenge for almost a year of Muslim Seleka rule of scorched earth and terror. Except now, with no rule of law, the looting has crossed religious boundaries and rampaging mobs sack their own neighborhoods.
On Monday midafternoon — peak looting time — on a side street near burned Muslim businesses, the dirt road was littered with 2¼ negatives, prints and opened boxes of photographic paper and chemicals. In front of a house with broken windows and doors, empty of furniture, a terrified woman explained that she was staying put to protect what was left from “a photographer’s house.”
Not that many photographers shoot 2¼ format. Even fewer Africans. I know of exactly one. He lives in Bangui.
I met Samuel last November at the LagosPhoto Festival, where he was showing for the first time his latest series, “The Emperor of Africa,” an allegory of the Chinese presence in Africa where he recreates famous portraits of Mao Zedong (below).
Mr. Fosso is an internationally renowned photographer, born in Cameroon and living in Bangui for years. He is best known from MoMA to the Pompidou Center for his incredible self-portraits as black icons: Martin Luther King (Slide 2), Malcolm X (Slide 12), Patrice Lumumba (Slide 8). His limited-edition prints fetch thousands of dollars in photographic art circles. He could have offered his latest series to the world’s best museums. But he wanted Africa to see it first.
On Monday, Mr. Fosso’s house was looted by a group of hooligans that 1,500 French soldiers could not keep at bay. Thirty years of work lay scattered in the dust. It reminded me of Serbian militias destroying birth reports from Muslim Kosovars in the early 2000s.
I started to pick up the negatives.
Living in Nigeria with his mother when the Biafra war erupted, Mr. Fosso fled the fighting as a child and found refuge in Bangui. He spent most of his life there in the Central African Republic’s capital. At 13, he opened his own photo studio. It was still running a few months ago. Despite the successive coups and violence, he remained in Bangui till late December 2013, for he is an “Afro-optimist,” says his agent, Jean-Marc Patras. Mr. Fosso has since been in Paris.
Ten minutes after I started to gather up his work, a French patrol drove by, demanding to know why a journalist was frantically putting things in a bag. Once I explained, the captain proposed that he “shoot and send the looters away.”
Jerome Delay/Associated PressBoxes containing thousands of negatives representing over 30 years’ work were scattered in the office of the photographer Samuel Fosso, after his home was looted during sectarian violence in Bangui, Central African Republic. Feb. 4, 2014.
“It is not for me to tell you what to do,” I replied. Seeking the opportunity to counter the flow of bad press for their lack of action, the armored personnel carrier moved into the alley and fired warning shots.
As my helpers left, I entered the house along with some colleagues. Mr. Fosso’s office was littered with more boxes of negatives and prints. Limited-edition, museum-quality prints, some burned on the edges — they must have tried to set the house ablaze — some soiled with water and mud. As we walked out with the most valuable work, an anti-Balaka militiaman toting an AK-47 rushed by firing into the air. He accused us of “having called Sangaris” — the French forces — and ordered us to leave.
Shoving all the prints and negatives into my car, we sped away. I called Mr. Fosso in Paris. He was devastated. But at least some of his legacy has been preserved.
I returned the next day with friends from Human Rights Watch to salvage what was left. Hoping the looters hadn’t beaten me to it. This morning, the looters left us alone. They were busy dismantling the roof of his house.
Jean-Marc Patras, Samuel Fosso’s agent and dealer, said that although the week began with the horrific news of his friend’s loss, he was grateful. “Samuel is cool, calm and collected,” Mr. Patras said by phone from Paris on Wednesday morning. “It’s a bad story, but at the same time we can look at it as the glass half empty or half full. We are positive. His wife and kids are safe since last July in Nigeria. He has been in Paris for a month. If he had been in his house when they destroyed it, they would have killed him.”
At the same time, Mr. Patras said that given how so many others in the Central African Republic have lost everything — including their lives — he was keeping things in perspective.
“He has a career in front of him, as he is one of the most important contemporary artists in Africa,” Mr. Patras said. “His works of art are safe in New York. He is collected by the most important museums in the world, thank God. You keep going on. But it is not easy.”
Jerome Delay/Associated PressA damaged print, with other scattered materials, of a self-portrait by Samuel Fosso from 1977.
The ‘Warka Mask,’ a Sumerian artifact from 3100 B.C., was looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the final days of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was later found buried in someone’s backyard. (Samir Mezban / The Associated Press)
What once served as a national bank looked more like a tomb. And it was, for the enemy soldiers who had recently tried to blast their way into the vault. The reinforced confines and simple physics left little of them.
A new team of unlikely allies pressed deep into the dark recesses. The temperature, already in triple digits, increased with every step. The stench of stagnant sewer water was almost unbearable.
After the painstaking process of cutting locks, the massive vault was opened to reveal the Treasure of Nimrud — 613 pieces of Assyrian gold jewelry, precious stones and sculptures that has been called history’s third-greatest treasure after King Tut’s tomb and the Bactrian Hoard treasure of Afghanistan.
By now, you’ve probably heard of George Clooney’s new film “The Monuments Men,” which is based on the true story of World War II troops who rescued art from the war zone. Well, this isn’t their story. This is the story of a modern-day group with a similar mission.
These “monuments men and women” fought to preserve Iraq’s past while fellow soldiers fought for the country’s future.
Corine Wegener (Samir Mezban / The Associated Press)
Included in their ranks was Maj. Corine Wegener. The now-retired Army Reserve civil affairs officer was a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts when she volunteered to deploy to help support the National Museum of Iraq. Her expedited orders carried the signature of three generals, and she was on scene in May 2003, weeks after massive looting subsided in Baghdad. As many as 15,000 artifacts were lost in the mayhem.
“This is the cradle of civilization. The collections in the museum represent the finest aspirations of humankind in ancient Mesopo-tamia,” she said. “A lot of the objects that were taken from the museum were in my Art History 101 textbooks. It was so important to me to help recover those objects and get the museum back up and stable.”
Wegener was met by a “traumatized” museum staff. Shattered artifacts littered the floor. File cabinets and computers that kept all records had been stolen. It seemed like the end of an already troubled history for the international museum.
The Treasure of Nimrud was its crown jewel. This 2,800-year-old treasure, discovered in 1988, was placed in the national bank before the first Gulf War. But its fate was a mystery. Besides explosions from within and without, and the looters and floods, there stood another antagonist: Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay, who had stolen billions from the bank and was reported to be after the treasure. “When they opened those boxes, their morale improved 100 percent,” Wegener said. “It was a much-needed boost for the National Museum, and the nation.”
‘Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia’
Reclaiming priceless artifacts is not always as glamorous as movies make it out to be.
One example is the recovery of the Lady of Warka. Known as the “Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia,” this priceless 5,200-year-old sculpture is the earliest known representation of the female face. It had been stolen from the National Museum, and the curators turned to Wegener for help. She educated coalition forces, enlisted the help of military police and put up “wanted” posters throughout Baghdad.
The Army’s 812th Military Police Company tracked the sculpture through underground art dealers and found it buried in a backyard. Capt. Vance Kuhner called her with the news.
“I take it this thing is pretty important?” the captain asked her.
“Uh, yeah,” she replied.
“Then I’d better tell the guys to stop tossing it around,” he said. After a few moments of stunned silence, the captain eased her anxiety. “Ma’am, I’m just kidding. It’s locked away in the unit safe and we’ll bring it to you tomorrow.”
In another find, soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha were looking for weapons of mass destruction days after coalition forces took control of Baghdad. What they found was the Iraqi Jewish Archive — thousands of Jewish communal and religious books and documents that had been confiscated from synagogues. They were in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence building, which was filled with four feet of water.
Wegener worked for three months to salvage the documents from water and mold damage, an effort aided by experts from the National Archives. She served as a courier when the documents were brought to a freeze-drying facility in Dallas and later to the National Archives. The collection has been restored and is on view in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage until May. It is scheduled to be returned to Iraq this year.
Wegener now serves as a preservation specialist for cultural heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, and has formed the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. Called the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, the agency provides emergency response when cultural property is jeopardized by armed conflict or natural disaster.
The culture mission
While similar exploits in World War II earned a place in history and Hollywood, modern monuments men and women are not as widely known.
Lt. Col. James Ahern was senior observer-controller for civil affairs at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La. After 12 mission rehearsal exercises, it was evident the jobs assigned to civil affairs in Iraq were not what soldiers were trained to do in the U.S. This was not lost on Army leadership, which was looking to reconfigure the capability.
Ahern in 2007 was sent to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Balad to get a firsthand look so trainers could adjust accordingly. But the State Department snatched him up soon after arriving. They had the lead in stability operations but didn’t have the people for the job — especially people with expertise in cultural heritage preservation and graduate degrees in history and library information science with archive specialization.
Ahern was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team embedded in 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, out of Ramadi. There, he joined an effort to identify lost books and artifacts, develop a working inventory and help design a new public library.
Ahern had to first defuse a cultural clash. The person in charge of the library was a Sunni woman, who was requesting assistance from a Shiite-led government. To say that she was getting resistance would put it mildly.
The team bridged the gap. They also obtained “democracy funds” to purchase books. They helped salvage history that would have otherwise been lost.
This mission is not new. In fact, it helped propel the Army Reserve from a singular medical mission. This was solidified by the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires all who sign the treaty to provide military specialists who protect cultural property.
In fact, the authors were looking at the Monuments Men of World War II when that rule was penned.
Still, the recent wars have proved many military leaders do not know they are supposed to — or how to — conduct such cultural missions.
“The capability that exists only in the Army Reserve was utilized by them, but largely through serendipity,” Ahern said. “There was no request for forces. I just happened to be there.”
The Army is giving civil affairs concerted consideration, especially in light of regional alignment and the push to ensure soldiers are culturally aware of the lands in which they may serve.
It is possible that soldiers will be trained to identify and mark culturally significant items and locations. Such sites may even be identified on electronic battlefield maps. But the bulk of the responsibility will fall to Army Reserve civil affairs companies attached to brigade combat teams.
“Like other ‘citizen soldiers’ in the Army Reserve, we work in our field in the civilian sector,” Ahern said. “Our job in uniform is our passion in life. So to be able to help at this level, in this way, there really aren’t words to describe how that feels.”
Archives Sarajevo burnt
A significant part of the historical archives in Sarajevo have been burned as a direct result of violent mass protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina over political and economic issues.
© 2014 Amer KAJMOVIĆ
The archives contain documents from the period 1878-1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Finance administered Bosnia, but also earlier archives of the Ottoman period and later archives of the war crimes committee after WWII.
© 2014 Amer KAJMOVIĆ
After the closure of the National Museum in 2012 and the burning of the National Library in 1992, the current fire means another loss for the history of the country.
© 2014 Amer KAJMOVIĆ
- The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) has launched a website to gather and publish news about threats and damages to Syrian archaeological and historical heritage and may be found at http://ancientworldonline.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-association-for-protection-of.html.
Members of the APSA are primarily volunteers who are eager to contribute to the safeguarding of [their] Syrian heritage. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.