Palmyra, Syria

Art Museum Directors Establish “Safe Havens” for Endangered Historic Works

In the wake of recent destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq, the Association of Art Museum Directors has released protocols to help members protect relics in war-torn regions.

Just yesterday, reports emerged that the Islamic State had destroyed the Arch of Triumph in the Syrian city of Palmyra. The city, which is a Unesco World Heritage site rich in ancient Greco-Roman artifacts, has become a tragic playground for the militant group. Other Palmyrian sites, including the Temple of Bel and the Iamblichus tomb, have suffered a similar fate.

The group’s demolition of these sites is just part of a larger campaign of cultural destruction. In the past, Islamic State militants have damaged or destroyed historical sites and relics in the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Raqqa, as well as in the Iraqi city of Mosul, among others.

Many in the art community are mourning the loss of such irreplaceable antiquities, and last week, the Association of Art Museum Directors set out a plan to help protect and preserve important cultural artifacts in war zones.

“The level of destruction and the intentional damage is deplorable and an attempt to eradicate cultural identity in tandem with the murder and repression of individuals,” Johnnetta Cole, AAMD president and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, said in a statement on the release of AAMD’s “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.”

“We stand with the international community in condemning these reprehensible acts of violence and brutal vandalism, and believe it is vital that we do everything in our power to help save endangered works for all people and for future generations,” Cole said.

Taking Action

In effect, the protocols empower AAMD staff to offer advice on and assistance with the transport of historical items to safe havens beyond neighboring countries that could be subject to destabilizing political, societal, or other factors. In this case, the protocols explain, at-risk artifacts should be temporarily placed in countries outside the region.

Along with allowing legal depositors to protect treasured works by placing them within the walls of museums located in safe zones, the protocols provide law enforcement with places where historical objects that are recovered from the black market can be held for safekeeping until they can be returned to their rightful owners.

And to allay concerns about the appropriation of relics by museums,  AAMD stressed that the institutions will merely be stewards of the protected items.

“Under the protocols, the works we will hold will not be the property of the museum,” Julian Raby, member of AAMD’s Task Force on Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art, and Dame Jillian Sackler, Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, said in a statement. “Access to the works, and exhibition of them, will be determined by the depositor. We are committed to working with our international colleagues to address this crisis collaboratively and with the utmost urgency.”

The protocols aren’t the first formalized effort to protect historic sites and relics, the most prominent being the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Notably, both Iraq and Syria were original signatories to the convention.

(Ruins of an ancient Roman town, in Palmyra, Syria. Credit: Meinzahn/ThinkStock)

Morgan Little

By Morgan Little

Morgan Little is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!