In this long piece, freelance journalist Rosalie Ernst reflects on the threats to cultural heritage in times of war. This question is developed through exchanges with Ukrainian cultural workers, currently fighting for the preservation of the country's heritage.

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Author: Rosalie Ernst

Photo Credit: Nancy Hann

Empty gallery-walls, barrier-covered church windows, sandbags and bubble wrap – in just a few days, the cityscapes of Ukraine were hardly recognizable. All around the country people are trying to protect not only themselves and fellow human beings from the war, but also statues, churches, museums and monuments. Within seconds, news of the first museum to become a victim of the Russian invasion spread around the world. The Ivankiv Museum, which housed numerous works by the Ukrainian artist Maria Primachenko, caught fire on the 28th of February. 

People are still racing to protect and secure Cultural Heritage. UNESCO expresses open concern for important sites such as Saint-Sophia Cathedral (Kyiv) and Related Monastic Buildings, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, and the historical centre of L’viv. These are buildings that are central to minorities and include churches, mosques and synagogues that have themselves become time capsules of history through their long persistence. These places are full of encounters and remembrance for the respective communities. On all platforms, the League of Nations calls for “respect for international humanitarian law, notably the 1954 Hague Convention […] to ensure the prevention of damage to cultural heritage in all its forms“. 

A reminder that has had to be voiced again and again in recent years, because the identification as a protected monument, as part of the Hague Convention, has been ignored all too often in recent years. Be it in Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan – culture in war zones is in great danger despite all efforts.

Destruction is sometimes used as a deliberate strategy of the powerful, and sometimes it is accepted as collateral damage. So, what exactly does war really mean for the cultural landscape? How is it influencing cultural heritage? How can material cultural assets survive local crises and open attacks? How and by whom can cultural property be protected and why is it important to ask all these questions? In this feature we try to get to the bottom of these questions and find answers in recent and ancient world history.

The UNESCO as a global agency for Culture and its Protection

The most important organisation for the protection of cultural assets is UNESCO, which, as part of the United Nations, has dedicated itself to the protection of culture. The member states have their own organisations for this purpose, which act on an administrative and diplomatic level, and contribute to the protection of art and buildings in various ways through legislation. The current situation in Ukraine also shows that wars are always aimed at culture as well and only rarely pursue purely territorial interests. 

Prof. Dr. Thomas Danzl from the Chair of Restoration and Art Technology at the Technical University of Munich and board member of ICOMOS Germany confirms: “The weakening or erasure of cultural identity is a practice of those in power that has actually existed since human history. The UN is, if you like, an idealist club that finally came together after the traumatic events of the 20th century to establish a basis for our international action and also to put a stop to cultural destruction.

When the United Nations came together in the 20th century, primarily as a moral and ethical authority for global coexistence, its actions were not only focused on diplomatic, economic and humanistic interests, but also on cultural ones. UNESCO, as a central organ of the UN, thus clearly gave priority to the protection and enhancement of local cultural assets.

There are three associated organisations for this purpose: ICOM (International Council of Museums), which is primarily concerned with art and museum pieces as well as archives, ICOMOS (International Council of Monuments and Sites), whose activities relate to architecture and the preservation of historical monuments, and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), which tries in various initiatives to actively, but also preventively, carry out cultural protection in crisis regions.

The work of ICCROM in particular has changed a lot in recent years: While the training was carried out centrally from Rome since the end of the 1950s, and often involved a clear Eurocentric view, the operational concepts of ICCROM in the 1980s slowly became local missions. Eversince the work is spreading greater awareness among civilians, who usually play a central role in concrete protection through courses on cultural preservation and archiving with the local actors following a more anthropological approach. In the last few years in particular, the use of interested laypersons has been emphasised, which under the term “Rising Awareness” is a modern, programmatic approach to cultural protection.

L’viv © Yana Hurskaya

Current cultural protection in the Ukraine

In addition to the marking of protected buildings with the two Blue Rhombs of the Hague Convention, the central Agreement of the UN, there are numerous programs that have been working around the clock to protect art, culture and architecture since the first acts of aggression. Pictures of statues in sandbags, wrapped in air cushion foils and the cold, emptied walls of some museums show the first measures taken. Actual export seems to be less frequent among the methods, as the director of the IZOLYATSIA Arts Foundation,  

Mykhailo Gluboky reports: “Unfortunately we don’t have the resources, time and capacity to get pieces out of the Ukraine at the moment. This is a logistical process that we can’t afford at this very moment even though it hurts. talking to several bigger museums it seems to be a general problem we are currently facing.”

In further conversations, this impression is confirmed, which is not least due to the strong gender gap in museum work. Since the majority of employees in the museum sector are female, many were able to already leave the country, according to Oleksandra Kovalchuk, Director of the Fine Arts Museum of Odessa. This imbalance adds up to the challenges of responsibility and possible coming to the security of Culture. Only time will tell how helpful the measures are, because deliberate secrecy on the various protections is also a concrete strategy.

L’viv © Yana Hurskaya

Restoration, reconstruction and salvage with the help of citizens’ initiatives

According to Professor Danzl, the current participation of civilians in particular is a change that has increasingly become the focus of ICCROM work in recent decades. Through new technologies in particular, civilians have played a major role in preservation, restoration, reconstruction and general discourse. For the first time, it is now possible to keep memories alive, at least visually and digitally, through photos, video footage and GPS data, even if the actual objects have been completely destroyed, as was the case in Aleppo. An example of this reproduction and revival of cultural voids left behind by wars is shown by the DAI (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut) in the “Syrian Heritage Archive Project“. 

In the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, material (evacuated works and remains) and immaterial cultural heritage (data collections, images, oral history) of Syria is exhibited. Thus, a virtual tour has become possible and is supplemented by numerous personal stories. In the museum itself, Syrian and Iraqi refugees are trained as museum guides under the project name “Maltuka” (Arabic for “meeting place”) and through their language also guarantee access to the people to whom this cultural heritage ‘belongs’. Project leader Stefan Weber has given the diverse connotations a space and turned the museum into a meeting place for a wide range of identities. 

Understanding that cultural heritage can be perceived and celebrated differently from society to society, from place to place. In cooperation with the National Museum of Sanaa in Yemen, the DAI has also been able to secure and catalogue many artefacts. The Archive protects against looting and illegal art trafficking, a problem that often occurs in regions in crisis and will continue to have consequences for the art world for a long time to come. Here, too, civil engagement was an important part of the preservation and archiving work. The new various forms of data also make reconstructions a valid possibility for the future as information is much more accessible.

L’viv © Yana Hurskaya

“Reconstruction is a difficult subject, because in a way it interferes with historical perspectives.”, explains Professor Danzl, “But there are positive examples: The bridge in Mostar was deliberately destroyed by the Croatian troops during the Bosnian War as an identity-forming monument of the Islamic-European population. Immediately after the destruction, with the support of ICOMOS, ICCROM and UNESCO itself, reconstruction began according to material-identical conditions. In Afghanistan, too, it was important to salvage the precious stones of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and to rebuild parts of them after they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

At the same time, it is important to protect the initiative of the population and also to ensure their safety. This includes deliberate secrecy, as hiding places or cultural activism could generate new points of attack.

Already in 2014 Mykhailo Gluboky had his first experience of how culture can become a target, as his organisation was displaced from its original territory in Donetsk back in 2014. On the site of an old factory, the IZOLYATSIA  Arts Foundation had provided an important focal point for the country’s free community. Artists came together in studios, the bookshop, the canteen or the cinema and formed an important element of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In 2014 this factory was occupied by military troops by the Russian Federation. They allowed us to get on the territory for 24 hours. We took everything we could, but the biggest part of the collection were big metal pieces that were impossible to move. One year later we found out that they got scrapped and the metal was sold.

There was a video, in which soldiers put explosives in one of the statues, blew it up and were bragging about this act of destruction. When territories get occupied, then and now, it is always connected to their cultural role. Our place was an open space of freedom and narratives, so in the Occupation of Donetsk it was important to shut down this cultural centre of creative thinking.”  

Cultural policy demands

A central point of the current cultural policy is the united demand to cancel or exclude all Russian projects, scientific cooperations, scholarships, art exhibitions and ultimately even ICOM Russia. However, this reaction is not shared by all colleagues of the cultural field, because it is precisely the communication and the flow of information to Russia that is of urgent concern to the international scientific community. In order to spread an image that deviates from the Russian state media and to continue to provide the population with alternative perspectives, complete isolation is counterproductive. 

Professor Danzl also emphasises that he sees ICOM as a federation that is primarily dominated by the ideals of UNESCO and less nationally shaped. Another big move of the Cultural Institutions of Ukraine is the reallocation of all funds into the Ukrainian Army. While Director Oleksandra Kovalchuk supports this decision she still emphasises how important the support for current artists is: “A lot of press is talking about the culture at risk, without actually knowing what our cultural heritage is about. So we need to make Ukrainian art more visible.”

Read: In Kyiv a Club that Doesn’t Exist Determines the Future of the Local Scene ​​

Cultural elimination as a paradox

On the 20th February, the last weekend before the invasion, Kovalchuk and her team demonstrated how much power culture can also give! In Odessa, as in the whole of Ukraine, numerous demonstrations were organised. With blue and yellow flags, people celebrated the country’s independence.

The Odessa Museum opened its doors free of charge on this day to also offer some kind of distraction and diversion. The long queue in front of the museum did not stop until the evening. “I think it was an important place for activists throughout Odessa. Going to our museum was just as patriotic as visiting the parade,” she says with a wistful smile. 

Oleksandra is currently safe with her family in Boston, US, but it is obvious how hard it was to leave this project behind. “I remember my colleague saying that day ‘This is probably the last time the people of Odessa can see our collection as it is right now.’ If Odessa gets occupied, we are not sure what the future holds for our museum. We did everything possible to secure the collection, but if we look at the history, we see that places of importance to the victims’ identity are always a number one threat for totalitarianism and dictatorships and get targeted.”

The weakening and even elimination of cultural values and cultural memories in wars can already be seen in the earliest history of mankind. The attempt to shape and form history and differentiated cultural concepts is a clear element of the attacking powers.

The deliberate erasure of cultural memories, also known as damnatio memoriae, goes back to the time of the Egyptians and runs through both ancient and modern history. From blackened names in various annals to chipped or painted-over portraits, erasure and destruction has been a consistent motif of the powerful.

In the case of Egypt, for example, the Pharaoh Akhenaten as well as King Tutankhamen were affected by the attempt, and it is clear from these two prominent names that, in the end, it is precisely the blanks that can strengthen a culture and occupy a very special role in collective memory. 

“It’s a paradox,” smiles Prof Danzl, “by taking away something, the presence is evoked even more strongly. Through elimination, the presence is usually rather strengthened. At least as long as there are recipients who are able to complete these gaps again”.

From this change of perspective and the reshaping of the narrative, a very decisive force emanates, which in the end allows it to flow into culture, cultural history and especially into the identity of the diaspora and exile. There are many examples of how cultures, archives and even the documentation of destruction as such, flow into the consciousness of society and thus generate tremendous power. And so it is sometimes the remains and voids that persist.

© Nasim Dadfar

For even if cultural assets and material monuments of all kinds are the epitome of a society’s attempt at immortality and strive to persist across generations, the collective memory remains immaterial in the end and is decisively shaped by its own narratives.

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About the author

Rosalie Ernst is a freelance journalist currently working for Kaput MagazineMissy MagApplause Magazine and Diffus Magazine. She notably wrote a feature series for the former, named “Unfuck the EU”, where she met with European artists trying to speak up and turn the ship around at a moment where European values seem to be at their lowest.

Rosalie Ernst is one of the Faces of We are Europe for 2021.

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