Reflections on the Culture in Crisis Conference, April 2015

by Roya Arab

We entered through a majestic arched carved stone entrance. My eye was caught by a plaque -akin to those found in early Near Eastern cities in clay, gold, silver and stone marking ancient monarchs – informing us that ‘Queen Victoria Empress of India’ had laid the stone to mark the completion of the ‘Kensington Museum’. Just over a century later we were here, at the now-renamed Victoria and Albert Museum, for a conference on Culture in Crisis, detailing the irreversible loss of heritage and identity in various countries caught up in conflict.

The Iraq War & Archaeology (IW&A) project specifically documents the impact of the Iraq War on the archaeological heritage of Iraq dating back to 2003.
The Iraq War & Archaeology (IW&A) project specifically documents the impact of the Iraq War on the archaeological heritage of Iraq dating back to 2003.

Nine years ago such a conference was held at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. Then it was the escaping head of the Iraqi Museum – one of many academics and intellectuals leaving a once multi-ethnic Iraq (George, 2006). It was the heritage experts in Lebanon, after yet another Israeli military onslaught, facing humanitarian issues whilst trying to rebuild with community and inclusivity in mind (Seif, 2006). It was an Israeli academic bemoaning the appearance of ‘corridors of control’ and losing out to the religious right with ‘messianic ideas of ethnic cleansing’ (Greenberg, 2006); the increasing threats to Afghanistan’s heritage (Gascoigne and Thomas, 2006); the very difficult task of monitoring illicit trade in the UK (Rapley) and discussions of relief efforts to counter the cultural damage caused during and after the Allied invasion of 2003 (Stone and Palumbo, 2006). We heard that ROE (rules of engagement) cards had been handed to soldiers – seemingly to little effect. Respected senior archaeologists described the vulnerable situation of Iraq’s heritage following the 1993 assault, years of strict UN sanctions and their ignored requests for the government to use maps of important archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion (Crawford, 2006).

In 2015, after a welcome from V&A Director Martin Roth, the Culture in Crisis conference brought us up to date starting with older conflicts and their long-lasting impact. We heard how Korea’s ‘conflict with expansionist colonial powers’ helped create distinct identities expressed in its current divided political and cultural landscape (Mckillop). Sadly, over a century later the US and UK governments are still engaging in unhealthy relationships and battles with strategic and resource rich nations – leaving behind fragmented nations. We were informed that Bosnia is still suffering from heritage lost during conflict and the ensuing, seemingly insurmountable, cultural divides (Petritsch, Walasek). How hopeless it all seems in Iraq and Syria (Curtis, Abdulkarim) and parts of North Africa (Von Rummel); be it stones for building homes, stray bullets and bombs, intentional ideologically and politically motivated destruction, or straightforward theft, the region’s culture is critically endangered.

Islamic State Jihadis Destroy 3,000-year-old artworks in Mosul Museum (, 26 February 2015
Islamic State Jihadis Destroy 3,000-year-old artworks in Mosul Museum (, 26 February 2015

We discovered that the people of Mali, whilst jeopardising their lives to take ancient manuscripts to the capital, are reluctant to hand over the books for safe keeping in the West (Cisse). A mistrust seen across the MENA region, expressed also in the distaste for remains associated with former autocratic leaders, such as Mobarak, Hussein and Gaddafi — interesting to note a shared characteristic of leaders in the region is/was their use of heritage for creating a multi-ethnic national identity reflecting the region’s diverse peoples and religions. This, together with Western interest in heritage it considers its own through Classical/Biblical associations, has led to some local antipathy to ancient heritage. As pointed out that day, one of the aims of ISIS in publicly destroying heritage was ‘to inflict pain on the west as they have always seen Mesopotamia as part of their heritage and appreciated it’ (Frahm).

It was widely agreed that more rigid legal approaches to the illicit trade were required that could be ‘backed up by groups of crime watchers’ (Tasoula). In brief, regulations to safeguard cultural heritage have been developing since the 17th century when rules stated that one could steal but not trash, with theft outlawed in 1899 after the Napoleonic campaigns (O’keefe, 2006). Laws were codified in The Hague by 1907 and rules on air warfare were drafted in 1926 (ibid). During World War II, the US and UK set up a ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives’ office, and representatives were sent in with the army to advise on sites to avoid. In relation to Rome, ‘Eisenhower spoke of fighting in a land that’s given birth to a civilization that’s ours and how the cultural heritage must be safeguarded’ (O’keefe, per voca, 2007). Following WWII there was the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. These etiquettes and international laws for the protection of cultural heritage during conflict have become meaningless over the past decades, especially in the Near East and North Africa. We were informed of a resolution being submitted to the UN by the Italian government to create a Blue Helmet peace keeping force to protect cultural heritage and to include the wilful destruction of heritage as ‘war crimes against humanity’ (Buitoni). Italian representatives also shared their experiences of reducing organised illicit looting of sites across Italy through engaging the local population and training the Carabinieri (De Caro) to help stem the flood of artefacts bleeding out of Italian soil.

Destruction of cultural heritage and identity has accelerated and deepened. Regional practitioners told us that the situation was beyond the capabilities of crisis stricken nations dealing with looting and wilful destruction alongside training and facility shortfalls (Abdulkarim). We realised the value of involving local communities, accessible education for heritage practitioners, facilitating archaeological practice, preservation and digital recording (Gerlach, Von Rummel, VanEss) as essential as tightening laws to counter illicit trade (Thefo) and prosecuting those responsible for destruction of heritage. Pretty much what we talked about and learnt during the last such conference I attended nearly a decade ago. There were, however, new threats in the shape of powerful extremist factions blighting the region’s peoples and cultures. For me, the main revelations included hearing a more critical reflexive attitude towards the emergence of and practices within European collections/museums and scholarly research (Van Ess); collaborations between the British Museum and Afghanistan’s National Museum for returning stolen objects (Simpson) and the new German governmental and institutional initiatives where before it was NGOs making a difference on the ground (Gerlach, Von Rummel, Van Ess, Goergen). The most surprising was the Antiquities Market in the guise of ‘white trade’ (Ede); how sorry a state is the ravaged garden of culture when vultures see themselves as birds of paradise.

How to go forth? Clearly, expansionist colonial powers should be more mindful of the long term social and political implications, at home and abroad, of military engagements. Targeting cultural heritage in times of conflict has become a major component in some of the ideologically led struggles burning through the MENA region today, obliterating cultural materials and dissuading return of expelled peoples. A process that had a catastrophic, seemingly irreversible impact on former Yugoslavia where attempts ‘to reverse the physical ethnic cleansing, recreate a sense of belonging, safety and security, reconciliation and truth building’ had not succeeded after an ‘asymmetric war’ followed by an American Peace accord, ‘remarkable because the US could dictate the terms….a feeling of liberal imperialism’ (Petritsch).

C. Saint Louis,
C. Saint Louis, “What They Were Thinking. Lance Cpl. Troy Merrell, Echo Company, Second Battalion, 25th Marines, Shatrah, Iraq, June 22, 2003,” The New York Times, 17 August 2003

Ideas of improving cultural training for military personnel were raised. We heard that the US had a ‘requirement to explain what heritage is; the 1954 Hague Convention won’t stop the terrorists but our military is obliged’ (Wenger). Judging by the evidence, the author couldn’t disagree more, and as pointed out on the day, during battle much is forgotten (Simpson). The enemy is often objectified, devalued and made in the mould of the ‘Other’; humanising cultural stories that unify don’t sharpen swords.

It was healthy to review the imperial mould of early European museums and scholarly studies and to consider the need to move away from these earlier mind-sets (Van Ess). Lest we forget, museums began as cabinets of curiosities of the rich and powerful. Petrie, one of the godfathers of archaeology, funded much of his early research through bringing MENA artefacts to the West. As for military cabinets of war, they date back to ancient times and are still found in some army barracks today. Attitudes and encounters that have clearly affected the MENA regions — raided and reconfigured by colonial powers during the last centuries, creating antipathy to cultural remains amongst local peoples. We need to find ways to redress the negative social and ideological impact of witnessing their cultural heritage being used to enforce statehood and a European sense of ownership of parts of their heritage.

The importance of educating and involving the local communities in their heritage, removing imperialist associations and letting them know it belongs to them and not just rich collectors and western museums and scholars, was reiterated. Institutions by and large have become more astringent. However, Antiquity Markets in European, American and Persian Gulf nations appear to have insufficient regulations to dissuade the trade of illicit artefacts.This is despite UNESCO’s 1972Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Cultural Heritage world, clearly have to forge a new relationship with the antiquities market in the face of the current levels of the obliteration of heritage in the region. But, I fear we have to tread carefully, considering the ‘influential Art Market lobby’ and the fact that ‘few states have made it law for the art market to fill a register’ (Thefo). We know the powerful want to collect objects to reflect their might but surely in many voices a tide can rise to erode the loftiest of walls.

What of the world’s attitude toward cultural heritage? During the conference, multiple tweets by a media director among us received only two replies, one being from an ISIS member expressing their intention to carry on (Garthwaite). This lack of interest in heritage needs rectifying. Mediadante’s interactive online project was praised as a great example for engaging the public. The project sets out to find five stolen or lost objects and attempt to tell their historical story. It also invites site users to send in images of their own everyday objects that mean something, be it a teddy bear or an ancient artefact (ibid).

A shrine in the Libyan capital Tripoli venerating a Sufi Muslim saint has been partly destroyed the latest in a series of attacks blamed on ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists. BBC News, 25 August 2012
A shrine in the Libyan capital Tripoli venerating a Sufi Muslim saint has been partly destroyed the latest in a series of attacks blamed on ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists. BBC News, 25 August 2012

Cultural heritage suffers during conflict, including collateral damage amidst battles, not forgetting that poverty itself can remove many a stone from ancient tombs to feed a child or build a home. It is organised targeted looting, the omission of cultural heritage from battle plans and wilful destruction for ideological aims that have placed some MENA region cultures in crisis. ISIS and their actions are a continuation of an ancient tale, starting nearly three thousand years ago with the Assyrian Empire’s displacement of Gods and peoples. In the modern world one need only gaze at the random lines denoting colonially selected borders of nations still paying the price. This tale has many a chapter, Bosnia where cultural and ethnic cleansing forever redefined peoples and lands, Palestine where cultural and land misappropriation go hand in hand, ‘Camp Alpha’ of illegally invading forces atop Babylon – one of the ancient world’s most iconic sites. Now with axes and angry faces, the story gets to be written by ISIS, destroying all it considers as idols and part of a world it wants to erase in order to create its own.

Whether we like it or not ISIS are declaring themselves as a state – albeit with a singular and unique version of an Islamic Caliphate. In time we must have the laws in place to indict those responsible. We should also prosecute the architects of the 2003 Iraq invasion for crimes against humanity. We may never achieve a prosecution, despite it being declared illegal (Savage, 2010) and judging by the protracted, as yet unreleased, Chilcot enquiry. But, a stand would have been made to help counter charges of western double standards, thus allowing more affective future legal actions against individuals and states destroying cultural heritage intentionally. Crucially, we should be locating and dealing with governments and private individuals funding ISIS.

We have to change our approaches, starting with a rigorous appraisal of western institutional and museum relationships with the cultural heritage of MENA regions and their impact on local relationships with their ancient heritage. This must happen alongside a more contextual socio-political understanding of the different nations within the region,enabling us to develop more nuanced and locally applicable programmes to teach and involve local communities and provide assistance to facilitate and educate future generations of MENA heritage professionals in techniques and methods of preservation, study and dissemination of their heritage. In the words of the head of Afghanistan’s museum, ‘a nation stays alive when her culture stays alive’ (Simpson). I think we have all seen enough cultures and nations dying to take affirmative action.


O’keefe R. 2006, ‘The Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict’; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

O’keefe R. 2007, ‘The protection of cultural property in armed conflict Lecture at the IALS’, London. 15 Feb 2007.

O’keefe, R. 2010, ‘Protection of Cultural Property under International Criminal Law’; 11 Melbourne Journal of International Law 339-392

Savage, M. 2010. Legal staff ruled Blair’s war illegal. The Independent. United Kingdom. 25 Jan 2010.


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Greenberg, Rafi. (Senior lecturer, Department of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University) ‘Archaeology as a tool of control over disputed territory: the case of East Jerusalem’

Palumbo, Gaetano. (Director of Archaeological Conservation Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia World Monuments Fund) and Agnew Neville (Principal Project Specialist, Getty Conservation Institute) ‘Building professional capacity for preventive conservation: the GCI-WMF Iraq cultural heritage initiative’

Rapley, Vernon. (Art and Antiquities unit SCD6 Metropolitan Police, London) ‘The last line of defence’

Seif, Assaad. (Archaeologist, Ministry of Culture/ Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon) ‘Conceiving the past, fluctuations in a multi-value system’

Stone, Elizabeth. (Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, State University New Stony Brook) ‘Patterns of looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq’

‘Culture in Crisis’. An International Conference, Victoria and Albert Museum London in collaboration with the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Yale University under the patronage of UNESCO. Tuesday 14 April 2015. Full report will be available shortly at 

Borletti-Buitoni, Ilaria. (Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism Italy).

Curtis, John. (CEO Iranian Heritage Foundation, Iraq) ‘An overview of the Iraq situation 2003-2013′

De Caro, Stefano. (Director General ICCROM)

Ede, James.  (International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art) ‘Protecting the past for the future, a view from the trade’

Frahm, Eckart.(Yale University) ‘Assyrian Sites and Monuments under ISIS: A Provisional Assessment of the Current Situation and Future Risks’

Garthwaite, Rosie. (Mediadante) ‘The Plunder: Engaging a global audience’

Georgiou Hadjitofi, Tasoula. (Cultural Activist and Entrepreneur) ‘In search of St Andrew’

Gerlach, Iris. (DeutschesArchäologischesInstitut) ‘The Forgotten Arabia Felix: how to protect Cultural heritage in Yemen’

Goergen, Andreas. (Director General of Culture, German Foreign Office)

Hilgert, Markus. (Director,Ancient Near East Museum, National Museums Berlin) ‘Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Iraq and Syria ‘at home’, current initiatives at the Ancient Near East Museums, Berlin’

Kominko, Maja. (Arcadia) ‘Endangered cultural heritage: Arcadia’s perspective’

McKillop, Beth. (Deputy Director, V & A) ‘Korea’

Petrisch, Wolfgang. (Former International Community’s High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina) ‘The political dimension of the Bosnia approach’

Rapley, Vernon. (Security Director, V & A)

Simpson, St John.(Curator, Middle East, British Museum) ‘Looted, researched, returned: positive lessons from working with the National Museum of Afghanistan’

Thefo, Stephane. (Office of Legal Affairs, Interpol General Secretariat) ‘Protecting vulnerable cultural heritage by collaborating with the Art Market’

Van Ess, Margarete. (DeutschesArchäologischesInstitut) ‘National Museums: National treasuries and flagships’

Von Rummel, Philipp. (DeutschesArchäologischesInstitut) ‘Protecting Cultural Heritage in the North African Maghreb, Problems and Responses’

Walasek, Helen. (formerly Bosnia Institute, London) ‘Bosnia and the Destruction of Identity’ 

Wegener, Cori. (Smithsonian Institution)

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Roya Arab is a UK-based Iranian archaeologist and musician (Honorary Research Assistant, Institute of Archaeology, UCL). Her research is centred on the socio/political and economic uses and abuses of the past in the present – currently focusing on the destruction of Near Eastern heritage wrought by internal and external conflict.  Her work involves the promotion of Iranian culture through its rich history, music and art. Website: Roya Arab

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on a Culture in Crisis

  1. Fascinating and informative, if a little depressing. I agree that a new, cohesive approach is needed to reverse, stop, or at the very least slow down this cultural obliteration. People are their culture and without that, we are all lost.

    Liked by 1 person

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