Utne Blogs > Arts and Culture

Cultural Collateral Damage


Institutions invest in preserving Syria's relics.

One of the affects of conflict that often gets overlooked is the destruction it wreaks on cultural sites and artifacts. In Syria, UNESCO World Heritage sites and religious structures have been looted or in other cases, destroyed unintentionally. To stem the losses, various institutions are stepping up in myriad ways.

The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk was developed by the International Council of Museums. The list includes categories such as coins, instruments, and vessels and is intended to be used as a guide to educate collectors and customs agents about items that dealers may be trying to smuggle or sell.

Another initiative is through Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian who have teamed up with The Heritage Task Force, an organization established just last month which is working in Syria. So far the collaboration between the three institutions has resulted in a three-day training program that educated Syrian participants on how to safeguard museum collections. Of particular concern were Byzantine mosaics housed in the Ma’arra Museum which had come under attack. Attendees were given direction on how to deal with the situation and provided with packing supplies they can use to prevent damage to various objects. Brian Daniels, Director of Research and Programs at Penn Cultural Heritage Center said, “While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage. This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.” The team is now working to document what artifacts remain in Syria and plan future preservation initiatives.

The value of preservation is manifold. Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, antiquities represent a shared culture. Such sites and objects, which entwine both place and time, express what it means to be human—to have identity, history, and memories. They are also symbols of creativity and human development. Additionally, Anne Richards, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration who announced the release of the Red List, points out the economic benefits. Museums and heritage sites made up 12 percent of Syria’s GDP before the war broke out. While this benefit may not be a reality in the immediate future, Syria only has to look next door to Iraq, which has worked to recover looted objects now displayed in the renovated Iraq Museum.  

Photo by James Gordon, licensed under Creative Commons.