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MUSEUM international N°219-220
Facing History: museums and heritage in conflict and post-conflict situations

9-220.gifTable of Contents


War and its Aftermath

The State of Affairs in Afghanistan

Heritage in Turmoil: Iraq

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   This issue had hoped to be a milestone in the reflection on the destructions of heritage and its repercussions in the international arena. It also wished to open a door in the analysis of these destructions in terms other than those of the loss of cultural identity and its symbols. We had hoped, on the one hand, to consider their significance in the historical long-term, in keeping with the analyses of Dario Gamboni[i]. On the other hand, and following the World Culture Report on "Cultural Diversity, Conflict and Pluralism"[ii], we had also intended to address destructions in the dynamic process of conflicts, since reclaiming cultural forms of heritage and identity was a component of the majority of conflicts that arose within nation-states during the final decade of the twentieth century. But recent history has overtaken this initial intention and ambition.
   The preparation of this issue of MUSEUM International has therefore been a lengthy, painful and difficult process.
Lengthy because the topic has been on the journal's publication agenda for several years. Three years ago, when developing the new editorial approach, it was obvious that the heritage and museum community had recently been subjected to a difficult period. The final decade of the twentieth century had brought its burden of destruction and questions concerning the role of heritage in political conflicts. After the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, one thought that a limit had been reached in the attacks on heritage, and that the unanimous reaction of international opinion acknowledged a threshold in the consciousness of the instrumental role of heritage during conflicts. We thought that the time had come for a shared, prospective reflection concerning the reasons and contexts of these destructions.
   But then came the looting of the Baghdad National Museum and the destruction of an incredible number of cultural testimonies and symbols of civilisations and ancestral history in Iraq.
   The exercise of reflection that had been carefully thought out for the issue of the journal, once again turned into a painful record of what was new or rated higher on the list of destruction, looting, thefts and disappearance of cultural heritage. We thus modified the contents of the issue concerning conflicts to respond to legitimate demands for information on the role of UNESCO and the community of experts to assist in the rescue and protection of cultural heritage in Iraq, and also Afghanistan.
   That was when the exercise revealed itself to be very difficult.
   First of all, because the majority of the most well-informed experts were engaged in operations in the field and only a small number had the time to draft yet another report on their work. MUSEUM International is, on UNESCO's behalf, all the more grateful to those experts who did contribute to this issue, despite their emergency workload. Secondly, was the situation clear enough, notably in Iraq, so that the contributions could be more than unanimous condemnations, still necessary of course, of what has happened, or presentations of what is hoped to be done? Furthermore, the quality and the intensity of the coverage of situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, by international newspapers, for the general public and professionals, questioned the interest of the issue itself.
   UNESCO is, however, with the support of specialised non-governmental organisations, the world's leading intergovernmental agency for the safeguarding of cultural heritage. For this reason, it has the responsibility of explaining, making known and disseminating the objectives and methods of its safeguard operations to its member-states and their professional communities, as well as to the international public.
   This is the essential reason for the publication of this issue of MUSEUM International. A second reason, equally important, is in the form of a question: what have we learned from recent history for a reflection on the protection of museums and heritage in situations of conflict and post-conflict? In our mind the destruction of cultural heritage, even though it has existed throughout the course of history, now indicates a shift in the relationship that societies have with the testimony of cultures and heritage. If the final decade of the twentieth century was marked by destructions of heritage on a symbolic scale that has been unrivalled for the past several centuries, it was also the period that witnessed innovations that led to the significant renovation of heritage categories. The emergence and the affirmation of the notion of intangible heritage epitomise these transformations. Should we see a link between these two heritage facts? Could it be an indication that too much attention given to the physicality of heritage objects, in a process of excessive heritage production, world-wide, has encouraged material destruction?
   If such a link of causality exists, it is doubtless difficult to prove. But, the hypothesis is worth investigating in order to understand the mechanism behind the propensity to obliterate what we also endeavour to preserve in its most diverse aspects. Admittedly, much has been preserved, with the help of technology and an increased knowledge of materials and contexts. However, have we, for all that, encouraged the understanding and the meaning, aesthetic as well as historical and cultural, of heritage?
   The unanimous adoption of both the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage and the Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, during the same session of the General Conference of UNESCO[iii], was not a matter of chance scheduling. It was instead the result of the necessity, acknowledged by the entire international community, to work on the significance - educational, intellectual and political – of heritage. We are convinced that it is a significant convergence in the practise and the history of heritage. It is true that the adoption of a convention whose objectives cover practices, representations, knowledge and know-how[iv], enables, first and foremost, many countries to place their cultural testimonies on a definitively equal level with those from a western tradition that is monumental, architectural and archaeological. However, with this fundamental affirmation of the diversity of heritage contents, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage opens onto other possibilities: that of the radical reform of heritage policies, starting with their significance and functions. For the moment, the heritage object, in situations of conflict and post-conflict, is subject to a contradictory tension between sanction and reconciliation. The Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage reinforces a corpus that is already constituted with two protocols establishing the international legal constraints for the protection of cultural heritage. Moreover, the experience gained by UNESCO in Cambodia, South-Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, the Middle East and East Timor (today Timor-Leste), among other places, justifies and authorizes the implementation of a conservation programme of cultural heritage whose objective is dialogue and the reconciliation of communities. But the question is raised to know how an element of heritage, whose destruction provokes the condemnation of the international community, can become, in a post-conflict situation, the subject of a programme of reconciliation. Even if it is in no way comparable with the subjects of the debates in history and human rights – such as genocides -, heritage is not a neutral subject in the politics of memory. As David Lowenthal[v] points out, it is precisely its absence of neutrality that is the essential reason for its irreconcilable nature with history. An overture in this contradiction can be found in the intangible aspect of the tangible, that is to say in the historical contents and meaning as well as in the symbolism of practices, in order to devise heritage programmes whose objective is dialogue and reconciliation. This signifies perhaps that less attention should be paid to the materiality of heritage or, at least, that equal attention should be given to the expressions of intangible heritage, which are related to it. The use of Living Arts as an element that triggers a heritage consciousness has proven worthwhile in post-conflict situations, where cultural heritage has played a unifying role between communities. This is the case in the revitalization of the royal ballet and the Ramayana Festival within the framework of the programme for the safeguarding of Angkor[vi]. Its success, materialized by this year's launching of the decade for the development of Angkor, encourages searching in the complementarity of approaches between tangible and intangible, the impetus for programmes of reconciliation between communities based on the appreciation and the protection of cultural heritage.
   This double issue of MUSEUM International is composed of three phases. The first section assembles texts that evoke the different components of a post-conflict situation: the research for stolen or missing works of art, the implementation of international legal instruments, the reopening of museums and the reformation of museographic programmes. The second part, devoted to Afghanistan, presents a situation of reconstruction and transition from conflict to post-conflict through the restoration of administrative infrastructures, first safeguarding measures and the initiation of restoration projects in the short and medium term, and finally, the interrupted efforts of museum institutions and their foreign partners to safeguard – beyond the objects themselves – the memory of scientific research which has been accumulated over several centuries. Iraq is the subject of the last section, which is devoted to the period of conflict and the return to ground zero in terms of heritage memory.
   Admittedly, heritage is not history. But its destruction forces us to face our history.

Stolen History: looting and illicit trade Neil Brodie

The trade in antiquities is directly responsible for the destruction and despoliation of archaeological sites and museums around the world. Illegally excavated and exported antiquities with no indication of provenance flood the market, and end up in the hands of private collectors, occasionally thereafter to be seen on the pages of an exhibition catalogue. The article provides a balanced view of this problem and makes some considered suggestions on how to solve it. The positions of the various interested groups are discussed, and the legal and ethical aspects of the trade are spelled out. Full and informed discussion of how to reduce destruction is provided, and it deserves the attention of all.

Angola’s National Museum during Civil War Fernando Vuvu Manzambi

This article describes how the National Museum of Anthropology has played a key role during Angola’s civil war in promoting tolerance and acceptance of others in their diversity as fundamental prerequisites for national unity within a context of diversity and culture for peace. The text analyses how the museum has provided cultural education through the message of its exhibitions.

A Role for ‘Keeping Places’ in the Timor Sea Region James Bennett

The keeping place offers an alternate model to the extremes of the museum either as academic and specialist institution or, conversely, popular theme park. It is as relevant to eastern Indonesia and East Timor as to the indigenous people of northern Australia. Historically cultural loss in the eastern Indonesian archipelago has occurred in equal proportion to the expansion of major overseas collections far removed from the people for whom these objects mattered most. Museums increasingly require the specific insights and experience of indigenous peoples working across national boundaries to devise more meaningful ways to preserve heritage for the people for whom it has most meaning. The keeping place is one possible solution.

The National Museum of Lebanon in Beirut Joseph Pharès and Joanne Farchakh

The artefacts on display at the National Museum of Lebanon have a unique history. After being unearthed, treated, and exhibited, they were buried once again in order to escape barbaric destruction and certain looting during war. The resurrection of this heritage which was buried a second time led to the reopening of the National Museum of Lebanon that was able to integrate the latest renovations according to the most recent standard of modern museology. The ground floor and the first floor were opened to the public in 2003. The restoration of the basement is planned for the year 2004.

The Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention and Progress in International Humanitarian Law Jan Hladik

The present article is focused on the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the progress in international humanitarian law. It is divided into six parts. The first part describes peacetime preparatory measures aimed at safeguarding cultural property; the second part analyses the regime of enhanced protection under the Second Protocol and compares it with the regime of special protection under the original Hague Convention; the third part deals with the legal protection of cultural property in non-international armed conflicts; the fourth part introduces briefly the penal regime under the Convention and the Second Protocol; the fifth part provides the outline of a new supervisory body - the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict - under the Second Protocol and; finally, the sixth part summarizes the progress in international humanitarian law brought about by the adoption of the Second Protocol.

Images and Heritage in Afghanistan Reza

Reza’s article accounts for the work of the non-governmental organization Aïna that encourages the promotion and support of democracy in Afghanistan through the development of media and cultural expression. His poetic language brings us through the emotion of one such activity and that is film screenings in the Bamiyan Valley on the cultural heritage and historic monuments of the country. Given the current situation, the use of images is the most effective form of education and communication in Afghanistan. The knowledge transmitted through these films, and visual education, signal the beginning of a new era and foresee building a future that is based on respect for the past.

The Role of the Guimet Museum in the Study and the Preservation of Afghan Heritage Pierre Cambon

Pierre Cambon, Chief Curator at the Guimet Museum in Paris, writes that a large proportion of Afghan artworks comes from the Guimet Museum own holdings of Afghan and South-West Asian art, testifying to the role played by French archaeologists in Afghanistan since the signing, in 1922, of an agreement giving them privileged access to the country's historical sites. But this high proportion is testimony, too, to the important curatorial role played by the Guimet Museum in conserving pre- Islamic Afghan artefacts; the Afghan collections in the Guimet Museum thus complete those of the Kabul Museum. The renovation of the Guimet Museum in January 2001 provided the opportunity to restructure the exhibition halls dedicated to Afghanistan, by reconstituting the various monumental or architectural ensembles that are presented. Unable to intervene directly on the field, this project endeavoured to preserve the memory of an adventure that was shared by the Kabul Museum and the Guimet Museum. The museum has now become, if temporarily, almost an Afghan Museum in exile.

Beyond Afghanistan and the Present: an historical overview of the Islamic heritage of the region Flemming Aalund

Simultaneously with the increase of national and regional conflicts, a common understanding has evolved that preservation of cultural heritage and sustainable human development is closely interdependent. The armed conflict in Afghanistan in particular and the subsequent human and cultural disaster provides ample background for a discussion of different conditions and attitudes to the preservation of cultural heritage and restoration of historic structures, both seen in a time perspective and as a question of ethics.

The Inventory of the Kabul Museum: attempts at restoring order Carla Grissmann

Twenty-three years of war have ravaged Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Archaeological sites have been systematically plundered, the Kabul Museum has been destroyed and its holdings looted. A rudimentary inventory to ascertain what remained in the Museum was begun in 1996. To understand the problems this entailed, it is necessary to understand the circumstances under which the inventory in question was undertaken. A brief chronological outline of recent events is given in this article.

UNESCO’s Mandate and Activities for the Rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage Christian Manhart

Entrusted by the Afghan government to coordinate all international efforts aiming at safeguarding and enhancing Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, UNESCO carries out main programmes in cooperation with professional non-governmental organizations, international experts and donor countries. The first actions have focused on the assessment of the conditions of conservation of the site of Bamiyan, conservation preventive measures on Jam Minaret and major monuments in the city of Herat, and protection actions for the Kabul Museum. UNESCO also addresses mid and long term capacity-building and training programmes, which in the post-conflict context are concentrated on national inventories and documentation and implementation of International Conventions, such as the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership and Cultural Property.

International Cooperation in Afghanistan: strategies, funding and modalities of action Louise Haxthausen and Jim Williams

The international community is committed to help Afghanistan to recover from the state of ‘cultural disaster’ resulting from twenty-three years of war. In-country resources were practically non-existent and made crucial the materialization of pledges from donor countries. An overall framework for development aid, i.e. the annual National Development Budget (NDB) has been put into place and allows priority projects to be implemented by the Afghan government, UN agencies multi or bilateral aid, and NGOs. Substantial, although slow, progress has been made so far but long-term partnership only and capacity-building effort will ensure successful results.

Some Examples of Solidarity in International Research Annie Caubet

Responding to the recent appeal to support Iraqi heritage, archaeologists, historians, restorers and museum curators, who all share Mesopotamia as their main subject of study, met at UNESCO headquarters to express their solidarity and willingness to work together. The main focus of collaboration between museums has been on research, training and the exchange of personnel, the circulation of works of art, restoration projects, exhibitions, museographic displays, publication enterprises, and joint endeavours concerning excavation sites and their development. The article refers to several examples chosen from the collaborative experience within the department of Oriental Antiquities of the Louvre Museum.

A Short History of the Iraq National Museum Usam Ghaidan and Anna Paolini

The history of the Iraqi National Museum is related from its foundation in 1923 by archaeologist Gertrude Bell to its present situation, passing through its various renovations, expansions, damages ... The text begins with its initial role to house selected artifacts yielded by excavations being carried out at Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian sites. It primarily consisted of the Iraq’s government building in Baghdad and moved on to a separate building named the Iraq Museum. The article ends with the urgent attention which the Iraq National Museum deserves for its rehabilitation as well as the responsibility of the entire international community.

The Destruction of the Iraq National Museum Selma Al-Radi

Special attention is given to the means of protection of the artefacts in the Iraq National Museum before the catastrophe but the article moves on to report, day by day, how it was looted. The drastic effect of the economic embargo is also emphasized. Above all else, and to prevent any further damage, a new security system for the protection of the museum has to be installed.

From the Prevention Measures to the Fact-finding Mission McGuire Gibson

The article presents the considerable measures adopted by scholars, scholarly organizations and UNESCO before the conflict. A number of steps were taken as for example declarations of the importance of Iraqi heritage were issued and a list and ancient monuments and sites was provided to the US military, among others. It relates, in detail, the difficulties encountered in assessing the situation of museums and archaeological sites around the country. The role of academic institutions as well as solidarity among international organizations and museums world-wide is essential for the safeguard of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Role of Non-governmental Organizations in International Emergency Action Michaël Petzet and Jacques Perot

What role can a non-governmental organization have by comparison with intergovernmental organizations or individual governments? Among other obligations, NGOs concerned with heritage should make concerted efforts, through their professional networks, to put pressure on governments that have not ratified the international conventions for the protection of cultural heritage. This also holds true for the illicit trafficking of cultural material. Solidarity appears as an obvious obligation to everyone, but how to demonstrate it effectively? The article gives an outline of the cooperation, which is explicitly supported by UNESCO, between NGOs such as the blue shield, ICO, ICOMOS, IFLA and ICA.

Setting up the International Collaboration Framework Mounir Bouchenaki

The first UNESCO fact-finding mission, led by the Assistant Director-General for Culture, Mounir Bouchenaki, arrived in Baghdad on 14 May and remained until 17 May. The team inspected in detail the museum’s public galleries, conservation laboratories, and administrative offices. The second mission of UNESCO visited Iraq in late June and early July, focusing on cultural heritage other than the Museum, including archaeological sites in the north and south, libraries, archives, art museums, and other cultural and educational institutions. The article is an overview of the findings of the three meetings that brought together international experts on the cultural heritage of Iraq to ascertain the extent of damage and the two missions in Iraq where restoration projects were formulated.


[i] See Gamboni, Dario, The destruction of Art, Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Yale University Press, 2002 et « World Heritage: Shield or Target ? » in Conservation, the Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, Volume 16, N° 2, 2001

[ii] See «Cultural diversity, conflict and pluralism », World Culture Report 2000, UNESCO Publishing 2000.

[iii] The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage were adopted by the 32nd session of UNESCO’s General Conference that took place from September 29 to October 17, 2003.

[iv] The definition of the Intangible Heritage appears in article 2 of the Convention. The text of the Convention, as well as the text of the Declaration, can be retrieved on the site http://portal.unesco.org/culture under the heading « Normative Action».

[v] See Lowenthal, David, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[vi] MUSEUM International has published a paper on the subject, see « The Ramayana Festival, the intangible heritage of Angkor » in Angkor, a living museum, MUSEUM International vol. 54, N°1-2, 2002.

Edition Vol. 55, Nos 3&4, 2003 (Dec 2003)
Publisher Blackwell Publishing on behalf of UNESCO
Periodicity Quarterly
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