Matagorda County Museum Our Blog Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones

Protecting Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones

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Cultural heritage is the legacy of a society, transmitted from generation to generation and maintained in the present. It can be material, such as monuments or town sites, or intangible, like oral traditions and social bonds. Both tangible and intangible heritage are a central part of what makes us human, and it is a fundamental component for understanding the diversity of the world’s cultures.

It has become common to see in the news, or in academic journals, articles on how cultural heritage is under threat of destruction, looting, or illicit trafficking. Some of the most devastating examples have come from ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra, but there are other threats as well. Some are economic, as people lack the resources to maintain heritage; environmental, such as damage caused by climate change; or related to armed conflict and terrorism.

The United States has a unique and important role in protecting and safeguarding its own and other nations’ cultural heritage. This is a task that requires working together across borders and in partnership with other countries, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, academia, private sector entities, and civil society groups. It also means being mindful of the challenges and dangers that can arise when these partnerships are disrupted or dismantled, as in the case of the recent sacking of the Syrian heritage site of Baalbeck.

One of the most complex aspects of heritage is that it is constantly evolving. What is considered heritage one day may not be the next, and this is a result of a number of factors, including political or social changes, war and conflict, education, personal identity, and marginalization. What a government, museum, or scholarly organization considers to be heritage can vary greatly depending on those factors.

This is especially true of intangible cultural heritage, such as the music and dances of tango and flamenco, the Viennese coffee house culture, falconry, Chinese shadow puppetry, the Azerbaijani carpet and weaving traditions, the Mediterranean diet, Vedic chanting, Kabuki theatre, or the polyphonic singing of the Aka of central Africa. This is why it is critical for intangible cultural heritage to be recognized and defined by the communities that create, maintain, and transmit it.

Armed forces that deploy in conflict zones should be made aware of this and be trained to understand the contexts where they operate, so that they are better able to protect cultural heritage from accidental damage or intentional misuse. This training should go beyond the existing cultural awareness training that many armed forces receive, and include the necessary legal, scientific, and art history knowledge that will help them identify heritage and better understand the context of how it is valued and protected in local societies. This will also improve the accuracy of their targeting, preventing damage to cultural heritage by ill-informed targeting or indiscriminate shelling. The training should be facilitated by a range of experts, including archaeologists, art historians, and specialists in protection and conservation.