The Protection of Global Cultural Assets
September 28, 2015
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 16th International Conference of National Trusts hosted by the International National Trusts Organization (INTO). Held in Cambridge, England, this conference brought together representatives of historic preservation organizations from Australia to Zimbabwe to discuss best practices, common threads and important opportunities.
INTO serves its membership by: providing opportunities to work together; developing and promoting best conservation practices; increasing the capacity of individual organizations; helping to establish Trusts where they do not exist; and by promoting advocacy in the interests of heritage conservation.
While the conference attendees were able to discuss such topics as Cultural Identities, Growing the Movement, Community Participation in Preservation, and Meeting the Needs & Expectations of Today's Visitors, as well as visiting cultural sites of East England like Ickworth, Anglesey Abbey and Wicken Fen, one sensed that preserving global cultural assets that are being systematically destroyed - either intentionally or through neglect - was paramount in people's minds.
The humanitarian crisis that wars in Syria and Iraq have spawned has a sister crisis in the wanton destruction of priceless cultural treasures and historic sites in those countries. While millions of refugees flood Europe seeking a better life, specialists in Islamic art and architecture worry that scores of ancient shrines, statues, mosques, tombs and churches are being looted and then destroyed by the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Although governed by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the protection of these historic properties has fallen to local residents who often risk their lives to protect their cultural patrimony. It's unclear how years of war, combined with a population that is increasingly fleeing for safer ground, will ultimately affect these treasures, but many are already lost.
The Grand Mosque in Aleppo
The Grand Mosque in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been damaged and its library of thousands of rare religious manuscripts, burned. Its famous minaret, which survived thousands of years, has been toppled. Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world's largest and best-preserved Crusader castles, has been destroyed. Other sites, like Apamea and Dura-Europos, have been stripped and looted. In Iraq, a mosque that was believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, as well as most of the Assyrian city of Nimrud has been bulldozed. A 13th century shrine dedicated to Iman Awn al-Din in Mosul has been blown to dust.
Palace entrance in Nimrud
The World Monuments Fund placed the entire country of Syria on its 2014 Watch, a list of the most endangered historic sites in the world. Its president, Bonnie Burnham, has been quoted as saying that international laws are being weakly applied and little financial backing exists to do anything to stem the tide. Steps have been taken to alert auction houses and other purveyors of Islamic art, but the main responsibility for protecting these assets lies with the Iraqis and Syrians themselves.
At a time when millions of people are fleeing the fighting, a huge need exists for humanitarian assistance and international goodwill. (American Express is supporting the humanitarian efforts of the International Rescue Committee to assist with the refugee crisis in Europe.) But, aid is also needed to protect these ancient historic sites in Iraq and Syria so that there are cultural assets for people to return to. (American Express is also the founding partner of the World Monument Fund Watch and has supported the preservation of hundreds of sites around the world.)
My presentation at the International Conference of National Trusts was about how to engage a community in the work of historic preservation. The tools that we've used to help do that - social media, advertising, crowd sourcing, volunteering, open houses - pale in comparison to the risks that local residents of Iraq and Syria have taken to protect their patrimony and cultural assets.
Archaeologist Lamia Al-Gailani Werr tells a story of a group of citizens in Mosul, Iraq who were worried that the Islamic State would destroy a leaning minaret from the 12th century that is known locally as al-Hadba or the "hunchback" and is pictured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar bank note.
When the militants arrived, local people stood in their way and the women of the neighborhood went and slept there. The women told the militants, "If you want to blow it up, we are going with it." The militants, thankfully, left. Now, that's real community participation in the protection of global cultural assets!
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In two weeks: The Lincoln Center Global Exchange