Cultural centers

The Smithsonian Cultural Heritage Initiative fights to preserve Ukraine’s history

Created last year in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative – a world leader in this field – the lab compiles images of Ukrainian cultural sites to help track attacks on them. The aim is to quickly alert Ukrainian officials to damage, in case action can be taken – perhaps to protect artifacts exposed to the elements, or to mount stained glass windows following a direct hit on a church – and to document the devastation.

“It’s a 24/7 operation,” said manager and archaeologist Hayden Bassett, adding that the six-person staff worked 12 and 18 hour shifts to maintain their rapid response. “Even though we’re not looking at a screen at 3 a.m., our satellites are emitting images at 3 a.m.”

Using their database of 26,000 cultural heritage sites – including historic architecture, cultural institutions such as museums and archives, places of worship and places of archaeological significance – Bassett and his team of art historians, analysts and technicians have identified several hundred potential impacts in the conflict. first weeks.

As the world watches as Ukrainians sandbag their statues, board historic structures and move valuable works of art underground, Bassett scours the landscape to quickly identify the latest targets.

“We can do something right now, with the methods we’ve built, the lab we’ve built, to get information to the people who need it most,” Bassett said.

The imaging lab is part of a network of museum and archaeological professionals around the world who have stepped up to help colleagues under attack in Ukraine, said Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. The Smithsonian office is the nerve center of a network of dozens of organizations, including the Prince Claus Fund, a cultural non-governmental organization in the Netherlands; the International Council of Museums in Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and many museums and museum workers in Europe.

“Until now, it was mainly about teaching materials and advice. There’s not much you can do while the shelling continues,” Wegener said of his office’s initial response. “We ask our colleagues ‘What do you need?’ We try to coordinate our efforts… by sitting down and saying, “Here’s what we can commit to. What do you have?’ ”

Museum officials in Ukraine are grateful, said Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the Maidan Museum in Kyiv, which co-founded the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative to organize the local rescue effort.

“We feel the support of the international community at different levels. International organizations like UNESCO, ICOM [International Council of Museums], Blue Shield and separate institutions,” said Poshyvailo, a member of ICOM’s Disaster Risk Management Committee. “I have friends from different museums, and on an individual level people are trying to help.”

For example, conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have produced smartphone videos for museum workers in Ukraine that show the basic techniques used to wrap priceless artifacts for transport or to wrap them on site. (The majority of museum curators are women, and many in Ukraine have been evacuated, leaving other museum workers to take over their duties.) Elsewhere, tech assistants are archiving websites and digital assets to counter Russian cyberattacks. Others are playing matchmaker, connecting European museums that might have storage space with Ukrainian institutions whose collections are vulnerable, or trucks with supplies that can be sent to the frontlines. Another objective is to secure the country’s digital cultural assets: scholarly research, archives and collection data, among others.

“You don’t want to lose that research or those collections databases,” Wegener said of helping move them to cloud-based storage.

The Met is one of many institutions working with the Smithsonian on this effort. The museum doesn’t have a team of experts on par with Wegener and his team, but its commitment to protecting global culture is just as strong, said Lisa Pilosi, Sherman Fairchild conservator in charge of curating the artifacts.

As a member of the Disaster Risk Management Committee of the International Council of Museums, Pilosi participated in meetings to help Ukraine.

“There is so much mobilization around the world,” Pilosi said. “It’s not easy. There are international organizations and communications exist, but the best thing we can do is help colleagues we know to tap into those existing networks.

Everyone is eager to help, but it’s still early in the process. UNESCO has not yet published an official list of organizations providing assistance. Funds arrive for supplies and trucks line up to transport them. It’s hard to balance the desire to contribute with the patience to wait for help to be most helpful.

“The Blue Shield is active, Prince Claus has sent funds to various places,” Pilosi said, referring to the international network committed to protecting cultural sites around the world. “The challenge is to assess what is already happening and not to duplicate efforts.

“We must take our place in the global response,” she added, noting that humanitarian assistance remains the top priority. “Our strength will lie in the longer-term recovery.”

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, born during the institution’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, has become the leader in the field by training museum workers around the world in crisis preparedness and response. and providing resources and mobilization support in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. . Some people in Ukraine they communicate with, including Poshyvailo, have gone through their training, Wegener said.

Poshyvailo adapted Smithsonian emergency response training for its Ukrainian institutions and used its policies for the Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative. They investigated museums and other institutions, asking for what they needed and evidence of loss or damage to cultural property, he said.

“We have tried to think strategically, not just about urgent needs, but about actions that will be needed tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” he said.

Now in Lviv, he works to support the Ministry of Culture in creating an inventory of cultural institutions and collections, while responding to reports of damage across the country. Many reports are difficult to confirm due to ongoing violence, he said.

Wegener and others advised Ukrainian museums to protect their collections, which he said was difficult to do in advance. “It can cause panic,” he said, “and the general political message was that we should only prepare at the military level.”

Data and photographic documentation from the VMNH lab will be useful in the future, he said. He and others in Ukraine are compiling a similar list. “It’s very primitive,” he said. “That will be very helpful.”

Crimea and Ukraine were an early target for the surveillance lab due to the ongoing conflict there, said Damian Koropeckyj, who started last April as a senior analyst and team leader. for Ukraine.

“We wanted to look there first to see if the cultural heritage was impacted during what I would call a hot conflict,” he said.

His early research revealed examples of monuments destroyed by the fighting being replaced by new ones supporting Russian and its version of the region’s cultural heritage. This led to the larger project of creating an inventory for the whole country, an initiative that became more important as the potential for a Russian invasion grew.

“We are a remote project. But it’s certainly very real to me. Believing that we can make a difference here is important,” Koropeckyj said.

Since last month’s invasion, the lab has tracked artillery and other military strikes using satellite sensors, including infrared technology, matching impacts against the lab’s mapped cultural heritage inventory. . If a strike appears close to a site, they extract satellite images or, via the Smithsonian, direct a satellite to capture images of the area.

Speed ​​is key even at this stage, Bassett said. As an example, he offered a scenario of a museum taking a direct hit. “If there is a giant hole in the roof, you are now exposed to the elements. During this short period we have seen snowfall and other weather events. Imagine it’s snowing in a museum,” he said. “You are also exposed to security issues, exposed to looting. And the building is now vulnerable to further deterioration.

“It’s basically on the clock for further damage,” he said. “We can help with immediate identification and minimize response time. This is one of the most pragmatic reasons” for the work.

Documentation also has long-term value, Wegener said. Military action that damages Ukraine’s cultural heritage violates the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, known as the 1954 Hague Convention. Russia and Ukraine signed the UNESCO treaty and are therefore responsible for the protection of cultural sites, art, books and scientific collections.

“It can be used for legal liability,” Wegener said of the visual documentation. “We are working on documentation to show the crimes against them.”