Last month, researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathered in Washington, D.C. to explore how to preserve culture in the age of ISIS and other threats. The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center and the Smithsonian Institution convened the group of experts on cultural heritage protection.
Speaking at the workshop, U.S. Army archaeologist Laurie Rush said, for U.S. soldiers, protecting cultural heritage isn’t only focused on official repositories for artifacts, such as a museum. Sometimes their assignments take them to places far from city centers.
To outsiders, the pomegranate orchard in a tiny village in the remotest reaches of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province wouldn’t look like anything special. But the U.S. soldiers approaching the orchard noticed that the walls around it were painted blue, an indication that they surrounded something sacred. It turned out that the courtyard held a shrine containing a dagger once carried by a friend of the prophet Mohammed and was a site of weekly pilgrimage for villagers from the entire region.
“Is this going to be on any list of world heritage sites? No,” said Rush. But, she added, sparing cultural property from destruction goes beyond safety precautions for soldiers. “It offers a form of stability that helps communities in conflict recover in the long run.”
“Cultural heritage has become very contentious in situations of conflict,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for history, art and culture. “But cultural heritage can also be used to help bring people together.” This was the inspiration for the daylong workshop and public event that sought to identify research needs as well as intersections for interdisciplinary collaboration in this critical cultural policy area.
Protecting cultural heritage during war is an important priority. The United States is a party to the 1954 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. That doesn’t mean a commander can protect cultural property if doing so is not a military priority, said Rush. But, she added, “the better prepared our soldiers are in terms of their ability to identify and respect cultural property, the more likely they are going to come home safe and sound.”
Fulfilling the goals of the 1954 convention requires partnership between the military and academia, said Rush, a board member of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit, non-government organization dedicated to the prevention of destruction and theft of cultural property during conflict.
She urged academics not to share privileged information, noting that comments by scholars about the use of satellite imagery to assess whether or not ISIS was destroying cultural property actually pushed the extremists to destroy what they had previously only pretended to destroy.
“And don’t perpetuate myths, Rush continued. Take the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example. Even among scholars, said Rush, there’s a common misunderstanding that the Buddhas were destroyed because they had human faces. “In actuality they were destroyed to demoralize the Hazara people of the Bamiyan valley,” she said, explaining that the Taliban paid engineers to ensure the empty niches remained standing.