Throughout history, destruction of cultural heritage has occurred in a variety of ways. In many cases, these acts were carried out in the context of a war or a conflict. In addition, they may have been motivated by religion, political ideology, or economic factors.
In the Middle Ages, the Church became a vehicle for the promotion of ancient cultural heritage. After the Enlightenment, this relationship began to rift. The Church considered itself a guardian of culture and art, while the Enlightenment saw it as an instrument of political change. During the early twentieth century, the destruction of cultural heritage became an ancillary result of conflict.
As early as the sixteenth century, European colonial conquests of the world began. In addition, works of art were looted and destroyed, and their values were redistributed. In some cases, the works were incorporated into the collections of European museums. Other works, however, were left behind.
In the nineteenth century, the European colonial conquests of the Americas and Africa began to accelerate. In these contexts, the destruction of cultural artifacts became a key target. This led to an increase in the number of works that were destroyed and displaced. For example, Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca and Aztec Empires. Indigenous populations were subsequently reduced. In other cases, the destruction of cultural heritage was accompanied by mass atrocities.
In the nineteenth century, encyclopedic museums were often obtained through colonial ventures. In other cases, the works were obtained through illegal excavations or sold abroad. This practice resulted in an unprecedented sell-off of many works of art.
Iconoclasm is an ideologically or politically motivated campaign to destroy symbols of a vanquished past. It is often fueled by the hatred of images of other religions. In some cases, it may give rise to shadow economies.
During the early years of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, art was seen as a commodity. Thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu during a civil war, and were digitized for future generations. In addition, Russian government-run schools were set up to teach Ukrainians hatred of their own people. Many of the works of art were returned to the museum collections, but many were left behind.
While these are some of the most famous examples of destruction of cultural heritage, the history of this practice goes much further than that. In addition to war and mass atrocities, destruction of cultural heritage has also been associated with genocide and ethnic cleansing. Many people are forced to leave due to poverty, lack of access to education, and health care. In addition, the destruction of cultural heritage can disproportionally affect religious minorities, leading to vulnerable religious beliefs.
Although it has a long history, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is a current and urgent problem. This is due to its association with mass atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations. It has also become an ancillary consequence of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.