The issue of protecting has been pushed to the forefront by the conflict in Ukraine and the looming threat posed by climate change. Cultural heritageto be at the heart of conversation between arts and cultural professionals. On Saturday, the New York Edition of TEFAF, Europe’s premier art fair, featured a panel discussion devoted to the subject under the title “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Crisis.”
The panel was attended by a small number of people. It featured Corine Wegener (director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, SCRI), a program that preserves cultural heritage and was formerly an Army Reserves officer responsible for monuments protection after the 2003 invasion of Iraq) and Sanne Letschert (who oversees cultural emergency response at NGO in the Netherlands).
The panelists and the moderator, Lisa Pilosi, who heads the Met’s Objects Conservation and serves on the International Council of Museums’ Disaster Risk Management Committee, agreed that their field is poised for advancements, but that they have some convincing to do among their network of global.
“What’s often overlooked is it’s not just a recovery restoration project, but it’s a long-term investment,” Pilosi told the audience.
Destroying cultural heritage intentionally or indirectly — from public monuments, to exhibition spaces, archives and art collections — has been around since war’s inception. Key takeaways from the presentation are that experts are constantly developing new methods to address these emergencies as they arise. However, the experts agreed that it is still a long way to prevent destruction.
“It is our goal not to have to continually respond to a disaster, it’s to break that disaster cycle,” Wegener said.
Wegener said that cultural property is often overlooked in the planning involved in addressing the aftermath of armed conflicts abroad. She stated that the U.S., unlike many of its foreign allies is not equipped with a cultural ministry. This allows for smoother relations between security forces and museums. Wegener’s remarks echoed Experts have been having long-standing discussionsConcerning whether the US should join 50 other countries in establishing a national plan to oversee arts and cultures via an executive Cabinet.
“It’s still a way to erase identity,” said Wegener, on why culture continues to be a major target in contemporary warfare. It has been reported that 200 cultural sites in Ukraine were hit in the conflict with Russia. Reports of an airstrike that destroyed a museum dedicated to 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 fielded damage from Russian forces over the past several weeks.
Only recently, according to Pilosi, have violations of the Hague Convention — which designates the destruction of cultural property as a war crime — been litigated. Wegener claims that during the conflict between Bosnia and Timbuktu in 1990s and the mid-2010s, many individuals were charged for humanitarian crimes, including the destruction of religious places and public squares. Wegener says that remote technologies, thermal imaging and satellite imagery have been used by organizations like SCRI or UNESCO to help track the damage to cultural sites.
“Our big challenge has been how to collect that evidence in a timely way,” Wegener said.
Wegener did similar work in Syria and Iraq, but she said that time is still a major obstacle. She recalled that she had only 13 hours to document the destruction in Mosul after the 2003 looting of the Iraq National Museum.
Letschert shared insights on some difficulties her organization, the Prince Klaus Fund, faces — mostly in convincing skeptical foreign governments and non-profits that safeguarding property should be a priority even in the wake of grave humanitarian crises. The majority of the funding for the field comes from private donors.
“We have some convincing to do, not everyone is on board with us yet,” Letschert said.
It’s not just established institutional archives being tracked. One priority that has arisen out of the Ukraine conflict and others like it, Letschert said, is identifying smaller archives and collections linked to regional, local, and minority groups, moving them to safer locations away from where war’s front lines are concentrated.
The role of culture and the arts — from painting, music, and literature to the museums that facilitate their exposure — extends well beyond preserving the past, Letschert argued. In its ideal form, she said, it deepens social life and abets meaning related to memory and home — reinforcing a civic principle often favored in the West “that there is something to go back to.”
One example she cited was the fund’s work in helping to preserve the Arab Image Foundation, an archive of photographs spanning Middle Eastern, North African and the Arab diasporas — following the 2020 Beirut explosion that ravaged the Lebanese city’s historic center and a thriving art scene. She stated that the fund pays equal attention in her opinion to communal art centers as to centuries-old public treasures.
“All are part of the same complex social fabric,” she said.