Last week, I was invited to the AGM of the IIC (International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works). It was very interesting to hear more about how they organise their work and their plans for the future.
The meeting was followed by a fascinating lecture by Professor Peter Stone OBE, 2016 UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace, Newcastle University.
Peter is a leading specialist in protecting cultural property during armed conflict and he spoke about his work with the British government as well as the role of the Blue Shield, for which he chairs the UK Committee.
In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, thousands of antiquities were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad. But untold numbers of archaeological sites were also damaged and it is believed that this destruction could have been limited, even prevented.
In 2003 Peter, a professor of heritage studies at Newcastle University, was approached by the British military on the eve of the Iraq invasion with the question, ‘isn’t there some archaeology we should be thinking about?’ and with a little help from his friends was able to identify some thirty or so important sites which required similar levels of protection to hospitals and schools (i.e. they should be spared from bombing).
Peter reported initial slow progress and some early set-backs. A Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan built on top of ancient water pipes, the digging up of which (to form the FOB) caused the surrounding villages to go over to the Taliban as their water dried up, for example.
Then in 2011, intelligence gathered by Peter in Libya meant that when the co-ordinates for an attack on six mobile radar units flashed up that this was a Roman Fort site, NATO planners were able to change the ordinance and each unit was taken out individually, leaving the Ras Almargeb Fort unscathed.
Many of us hold our heads in our hands when we see the terrible deliberate destruction of heritage happening around the world, so it was uplifting to hear from someone who had been able to make a difference, albeit by influencing and educating NATO forces.
Peter is also Chair of the UK Committee for the Blue Shield, the cultural heritage equivalent of the Red Cross, and he renewed his call for the British Government to finally ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of the Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999.
With the whole world reacting in horror at the destruction and looting of heritage under the control of ISIL-Daesh, it is frankly an embarrassment that the UK is the only major power that has failed to ratify the Convention – due apparently to lack of parliamentary time.
INTO has been often asked ‘What are you going to do about Iraq?’. Or Syria? Or Mali? And our answer is generally that we can support ngos on the ground (with training and expertise) and raise our voice in support of protection/against destruction, such as through UNESCO’s Unite4Heritage campaign.
Many of those present at Monday’s lecture wanted to know what personal action they could take and there did not seem to be an easy answer to that question either. Peter said that changing the mind-set of ISIL-Daesh would be well-nigh impossible but that it was important to continue to raise awareness of the need for collective responsibility for the protection of these historic sites, which belong to all peoples of the world.
And by co-ordinating the work of armed forces, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, museums, leading auction houses and national governments, we can also hope to block the black market trade in cultural artefacts and thereby protect cultural sites.
Conservation has never been a science or practice that can be neatly parcelled into discrete national packages and the conservation of our built, cultural and natural heritage depends on global co-operation, now more than ever.
“In any conflict, there are not just the human casualties but also casualties in terms of the cultural property and heritage of a society. The destruction of cultural property, and associated trade in illicit antiquities, strikes at the identity, cohesion, well-being, and economic potential of affected communities and undermines opportunities for intercultural dialogue. It robs the world of its past.” Professor Peter Stone