I’ve posted on SSRN a short paper discussing the Menil Foundation’s stewardship of the Lysi Frescoes. Given how much art is in jeopardy in the middle-East at the moment, it may be worth revisiting the Menil Foundation’s courageous decision to purchase, restore, and return these frescoes. It highlights that permanent acquisition is not the only way for museums to acquire new material.
The return of works of art by museums to nations of origin has generated considerable scholarly response, yet there has been little engagement with the potential role museums could have as responsible stewards for works of art that are at risk. One important example can be seen in the actions of the Menil Foundation. The Menil, with the permission of the Church of Cyprus, conserved a series of frescoes and created a purpose-built gallery on the Menil campus in Houston to safely house them. It was a novel solution to the problems caused by the situation in Cyprus. Acquiring and saving these thirteenth century frescoes gives an important template for the rescue and conservation of works of art that are at risk, but also exposes similarly-situated actors to the moral dilemma of purchasing looted art with the consent of the original owner.
The Rescue, Stewardship, and Return of the Lysi Frescoes by the Menil Foundation (September 10, 2015). 22 International Journal of Cultural Property 1, 1-14 (2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2661091
CBS News has some terrific first-hand reporting of antiquities smuggling from Apamea to Istanbul in a video report. Nothing here comes as much of a surprise sadly, but it confirms what we all suspect has been happening. A Roman mosaic, and various other portable objects, including some Roman glass (some of which the report points out may have been fakes).
“A human life doesn’t have much value without culture to go with it” says Markus Hilgert, director of the Pergamon Museum. He’s interviewed in a CNN profile of Heritage for Peace, a group working to document the destruction taking place there. The group walks a delicate line, trying not to take a stand in the dispute. The group has limited funding and works with a number of volunteers with founder Isber Sabrine:
A 29-year-old archaeologist from a village near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria, Sabrine is using modern technology to trace and document the looting and destruction of his country’s ancient heritage.
Working from Berlin, he runs a network in Syria of around 150 volunteers — archaeologists, architects, students and simply concerned citizens — who often pose as antiquities buyers to see what has been stolen in the course of Syria’s now more than four-year uprising. He communicates with them via Skype when the Internet in Syria is working, which isn’t often.
“They go to the locals and they say look, we are interested. They cannot buy, but at least they make photos and they send us photos,” says Sabrine. “Like this we have a list of looted materials from Syria.”
That list is shared with law enforcement, auction houses and collectors. CNN asked if we could publish some of those photographs — we saw statues, mosaics and coins — but Sabrine declined for fear the photos might expose the volunteers.
After years of chaos, the market for stolen antiquities is flooded, and dealers are holding back some of their most valuable items. “We know that the most important objects don’t go to market now,” says Sabrine. “The big dealers are waiting, maybe two, three or four years, and then when the opportunity is right, they will sell.”
In remarks marking the opening of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany yesterday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asked for help from the international community:
Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action . . . Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the ‘Venice of the Sands’, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present. . .
That is a wonderful sentiment, and one I endorse, but note also that there are not calls for much in the way of concrete action. And that’s because short of military intervention there really is not much that can be done to dissuade those bent on erasing heritage. In a statement today the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated its deep concern about the situation in Palmyra:
Intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes . . .
So it may amount to war crimes, yet the International Criminal Court has no good opening to bring charges even if it wanted to. That’s because neither Syria nor Iraq has signed on to the ICC convention, and the individuals who commit this destruction are not high-profile enough it seems to warrant an ICC investigation and prosecution anyway. And so the end result is there is an accountability gap for this destruction.
[T]he legal bases for prosecuting individuals for violations of the 1954 Hague Convention and the World Heritage Convention are largely absent. Those responsible may be prosecuted under the Syrian Antiquities Law, a law that was presumably approved independently of those conventions and hence present a number of caveats explained above. If the Chautauqua Blueprint is successful, it would turn a blind eye to three major causes of damage (viz. looting, use for military purposes, attacks against sites that constitute military objectives) allowing those behind this vicious circle of violations to “walk away.” This is especially frustrating if one takes into consideration that the driving force behind the adoption of conventional laws for the protection of cultural property has mostly been motivated by a desire to hold individuals accountable. The accountability gap shown in the case of Syria should serve those involved in the implementation of cultural heritage laws (e.g., UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee at the international level) as a warning that the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, or any other instrument before that, did not manage to have consequences for Bamiyan or beyond.
So if there is one thing that can be done, it may be to consider reforms to the current laws to hold those who destroy heritage individually accountable. But that change would have little impact on the current conflict in Syria.
The UK seems poised to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Convention responded to the horrible theft and destruction which took place during World War II. The UK Government has at various points in the past indicated ratification of the Convention was imminent, including in 2004, as pointed out by the IAL blog. It was even an original signatory to the agreement when it was adopted. But ratification has been slow, even leading Colin Renfrew to accuse the UK of “dithering” over ratification. It seems that dithering may now be coming to an end. The new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has indicated he will introduce legislation to formally bring the UK in line with the 115 other countries which have ratified the Convention. The UK has claimed to have been in compliance with the Convention anyway, so the practical changes brought about by the UK ratification seems to be slight. But the symbolic effect is considerable.
In his statement Whittingdale said:
While the UK’s priority will continue to be the human cost of these horrific conflicts, the UK must also do what we can to prevent any further cultural destruction.The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its very identity. The knowledge and expertise of the experts in our cultural institutions makes us uniquely qualified to help. I believe that the UK therefore has a vital responsibility to support cultural protection overseas.
A terrific sentiment, and one that will hopefully will lead to ratification of the Convention.
Some of the other comments made by Whittingdale though may do more in the near term for heritage in conflict zones. He announced a new “cultural protection fund” which would help safeguard cultural heritage in conflict areas. Funding if deployed well could have a positive impact. He also announced a summit bringing together individuals from the government and institutions like the British Museum, the V&A, and perhaps others.
So says Stefan Weber, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin in an interview with Sönje Storm of DW. The entire interview is well worth a read, but of particular note are his comments on how we can prepare for the time after the armed conflict in Syria, and how paying too much attention to the destruction at Palmyra can distract us from the human suffering taking place there, and also gives ISIS more credibility:
I argue in a Saturday Op-Ed that one way to think about the iconoclasm of so-called Islamic State militants is to value the art they would destroy:
The Islamic State militants destroy art to send a powerful and destructive message: that learning, beauty and the transformational power of art has no place in any so-called Islamic State. We can expose the lie in this message in one simple way: by supporting ancient and contemporary art from the region.
Our city demonstrates how effective an ambassador art can be. Houston stands proud as one of America’s emerging cities for terrific art from all over the world, especially art from the Middle East. Works of art that formed the Houston-based FotoFest 2014 Biennial are currently on display at the Emirates Palace Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Also, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has an outstanding collection of Islamic art spanning the 9th to early 20th centuries; beautiful calligraphy and other decorative art that demonstrates the region’s commitment to learning and beauty.
We should encourage the MFA and other museums to responsibly display more works of Islamic art from this troubled region. By countering the vile message of the Islamic State by consuming and valuing Islamic art, we value and preserve what they would destroy.
Dr. Marina Lostal, a Lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong University, School of Law has written an article examining the potential use of individual criminal responsibility in Syria for damage to cultural heritage. Her paper, presented at Qatar University in 2014 looks at the role cultural heritage plays in this armed conflict, and looks to whether prosecution of individuals responsible is a viable option. Here is the abstract
Recent reports have confirmed damage to five of the six Syrian world heritage sites during the current armed conflict as well as extensive looting of several of its archaeological sites on the Syrian Tentative List of world heritage. This article examines the role and fate of Syrian world cultural heritage from the beginning of the conflict, maps out the different cultural property obligations applicable to Syria while illustrating, where possible, how they may have been violated. Then, it assesses if and how those responsible for these acts can be prosecuted and punished. The analysis reveals an accountability gap concerning crimes against Syrian world cultural heritage. As such, the article proposes to reinstate the debate over crimes against common cultural heritage which once arose in the context of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.