The war in Ukraine and the imminent threat of climate change have placed the issue of safeguarding cultural heritage at the center of discussions among arts and culture professionals. On Saturday, the New York edition of TEFAF, Europe’s leading art fair, presented a panel discussion devoted to the subject under the title “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Crisis”.
The panel, which drew a handful of listeners, included two leading figures in charge of cultural heritage initiatives: Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), a cultural heritage preservation program and a former military officer. the army reserve in charge of the protection of monuments following the invasion of Iraq in 2003; and Sanne Letschert, who oversees cultural emergency response at a Dutch NGO.
Panelists and moderator Lisa Pilosi, who heads Met’s Objects Conservation and sits on the International Council of Museums’ Disaster Risk Management Committee, agreed that their field is about to evolve, but they have compelling arguments to make among their global network.
“What’s often overlooked is that this is not just a salvage restoration project, but it’s a long-term investment,” Pilosi told the audience.
The intentional or indirect destruction of cultural heritage – from public monuments to exhibition spaces, including archives and art collections – has existed since the beginning of the war. Key takeaways from the conference reveal that as conflicts continue to escalate across the world, experts are proposing methods to respond to these emergencies in real time. Still, the three experts agreed that their field is still a long way from preventing destruction in the first place.
“Our goal is to not have to continually respond to a disaster, it’s to break that cycle of disaster,” Wegener said.
According to Wegener, the safeguarding of cultural property is often excluded from planning aimed at mitigating the consequences of armed conflict abroad. Unlike many of its foreign allies, the United States notably lacks a Ministry of Culture, where relations between museums and security forces are often facilitated, she said. Wegener’s remarks echoed long-running debates among experts over whether or not the United States should join more than 50 of its international peers in developing a national agenda to oversee arts and culture. through an executive cabinet.
“It’s always a way to erase identity,” Wegener said, explaining why culture continues to be a major target in contemporary warfare. Some 200 cultural sites in Ukraine have already been targeted in the war with Russia. Reports of an airstrike that destroyed a museum dedicated to the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda circulated on Sunday; a handful of spaces – from history museums to religious sites and public theaters housing civilians – are among those that have suffered damage from Russian forces in recent weeks.
It is only recently, according to Pilosi, that violations of the Hague Convention – which designates the destruction of cultural property as a war crime – have been pleaded. However, according to Wegener, during the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Timbuktu in the mid-2010s, many people were charged with humanitarian crimes, including the intentional destruction of religious cities and public squares. The effort to prosecute these crimes, according to Wegener, has been aided by remote technologies and satellite and thermal imagery that organizations like SCRI and UNESCO can use to more accurately track damage to cultural sites.
“Our big challenge has been how to collect this evidence in a timely manner,” Wegener said.
While Wegener has conducted similar work for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, she noted that time continues to be a major obstacle. In Mosul, she recalls having only 13 hours after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum in 2003 to document the destruction.
Letschert shared insights into some of the challenges his organization, the Prince Klaus Fund, faces — primarily to convince skeptical foreign governments and nonprofits that safeguarding property should be a priority even in the wake of severe humanitarian crises. Funding continues to be a challenge on the ground, which receives most of its support from private donors.
“We have arguments to convince, not everyone agrees with us yet,” Letschert said.
It is not only established institutional records that are tracked. One of the priorities emerging from the Ukrainian conflict and others like it, Letschert said, is to identify smaller archives and collections related to regional, local and minority groups, moving them to safer locations away from areas where the front lines of the war are concentrated.
The role of culture and the arts — from painting, music and literature to the museums that facilitate their display — extends far beyond preserving the past, Letschert explained. In its ideal form, she said, it deepens social life and encourages meaning linked to memory and home – reinforcing a civic principle often favored in the West “that there is something to come back to”. .
One example she cited was the fund’s work to help preserve the Arab Image Foundation, an archive of photographs spanning the Middle Eastern, North African and Arab diasporas – following the explosion of Beirut in 2020 which has ravaged the historic center of the Lebanese city and a thriving arts scene. The fund pays the same attention to communal art centers, she said, as it does to age-old public relics.
“All are part of the same complex social fabric,” she said.