By Corine Wegener and Marjan Otter

    Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.

This statement and other protective measures for cultural property were a direct result of concerted efforts by governments, the military, and cultural heritage professionals of many of the Allied nations to protect Europe's cultural heritage during World War II. Nonetheless, countless icons of our shared cultural heritage were damaged, looted, or destroyed during the conflict. In response, the nations of the world gathered in the Netherlands to draft the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, in an attempt to ensure that such losses of cultural heritage during war would never again occur.

However, recent conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq demonstrate that cultural heritage remains vulnerable during armed conflict. In recent years, in Sarajevo the national library was burned, and the facade of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was pockmarked by snipers; in Afghanistan, objects in the Kabul Museum were defaced, destroyed, or looted and sold abroad, and the great Buddhas at Bamiyan were obliterated; and in April 2003, the Iraq National Museum was looted, and the ongoing lack of security elsewhere in the country allows the continued looting and destruction of thousands of archaeological sites.

There is much we can learn from those instances in the past in which some collecting institutions—through careful planning—successfully protected all or most of their collections during armed conflict. We can also learn from the ways in which cultural professionals have helped save cultural property at risk in war zones. Looking to the future, cultural heritage organizations and professionals should combine their efforts under the banner of the International Committee of the Blue Shield and its affiliated organizations—inspired by the 1954 Hague Convention—as the most effective mechanism for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict.

Lessons Learned from WWII

Observers of history know that cultural property usually suffers during armed conflict. "To the victor go the spoils" was the attitude up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. By World War II, there were internationally accepted norms prohibiting the looting of cultural property during war1. However, under Hitler, the Nazis devised the most organized art looting operation ever, stealing cultural treasures from museums, churches, and private individuals in every country they occupied. While both sides in this war were responsible for the destruction of countless historic buildings, monuments, and cultural heritage sites during military operations, many Allied nations also mounted some of the most comprehensive efforts ever attempted for the protection of cultural heritage during war.


1During World War II, the Hague Conventions on the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 1899 (Hague II) and 1907 (Hague IV) governed the conduct of the war. Seizure of cultural property was clearly forbidden.



In the mid-1930s, many European museums and cultural institutions began long-range planning for war by making lists of important objects, coordinating transportation via truck or rail, and scouting appropriate offsite storage locations. Museums stockpiled construction materials for crates and for reinforcing their buildings against bombing.

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When war finally arrived, many museum staff evacuated their institutions, sending their most precious objects away for safekeeping. At the Louvre in Paris, the galleries were emptied. In Amsterdam, Rembrandt's famous Night Watch was rolled up and hidden. In Italy, Michelangelo's David was bricked up in its own tower, and workmen built a protective structure in situ around the Arch of Constantine. Da Vinci's The Last Supper fresco received a wooden wall reinforced with sandbags, saving it from a stray bomb that later destroyed much of the church. While museums in the United States remained open, many institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, moved their most important objects to remote sites.

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From the beginning of the war, cultural heritage professionals and organizations in several Allied countries lobbied for comprehensive programs to protect cultural property, both at home and abroad. One such U.S. committee helped create the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) teams within the U.S. Army Civil Affairs Division. The MFAA teams—mostly composed of museum professionals, art historians, and other cultural heritage experts already serving in the military in another capacity—were responsible for identifying important cultural sites on military maps so that pilots and artillery could avoid them. MFAA officers followed the battle, entering liberated towns just behind the combat forces in order to protect and salvage cultural sites. Several Allied nations also organized a small number of MFAA-type troops who worked alongside those from the United States. Toward the end of the war, when Allied forces discovered repositories of thousands of objects looted by the Nazis, the MFAA teams were given a new and monumental task: removal of these objects to various collecting points for cataloguing and restitution to their countries of origin. The MFAA teams (recently recognized by the U.S. Congress for saving thousands of works of cultural heritage) were part of the most effective effort ever undertaken by the military to protect cultural property during wartime.

These extraordinary examples of how, in the past, cultural heritage professionals prepared for war and lobbied their governments to protect cultural property during war can serve as guides for today's professionals on ways to protect collections during and after conflict in the future.

Cultural Property in a Twenty-First-Century War

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While World War II provides multiple instances of museums preparing for major armed conflict, more recent examples of actions by other courageous colleagues in areas of conflict are also instructive. The looting of the Iraq National Museum is a case in point. The press initially reported that more than one hundred seventy thousand objects, the entire contents of the museum, had been looted; it was later learned that there were actually closer to half a million objects in the collection, many of which had not been catalogued or were deposited there from other regional museums for protection. In fact, only about fifteen thousand objects were taken. Key staff members removed and hid most of the collection in the weeks prior to the U.S. invasion. While the losses were tragic, they were a fraction of what they might have been had the staff not carefully planned and executed an evacuation of the galleries. In addition, staff used cement blocks to close up several entrances and storage areas to hinder looters, surrounded dozens of immovable sculptures and friezes with foam to protect against bomb damage, and sandbagged the floor of the Assyrian Gallery to protect the large stone friezes in case they fell during bombing. Finally, well in advance of the invasion, the staff painted the international symbol for the protection of cultural property, the blue shield, on the roof of the museum.

While these precautions were instrumental in saving much of the collection, small oversights proved disastrous. For example, the lack of a key control system allowed keys for secure storage to fall into the hands of the looters, giving them access to areas they might not otherwise have reached. More than four thousand ancient cylinder seals were lost from one storage area alone.

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The Coalition Forces in Iraq did not have the kind of MFAA units that were present during World War II. While most countries still have Civil Affairs units, few cultural heritage personnel serve in today's military, leaving most military commanders without this expert advice. Furthermore, units receive little training on cultural property protection beyond instructions to avoid damage during military operations. Some European nations maintain Civil-Military Cooperation units, including a small force of reservists who are cultural heritage professionals; however, their deployment is often hindered by their nation's rules regarding entry into combat areas. One result of these limitations was that in the spring and summer of 2003, the team of cultural heritage professionals working with the staff of the Iraq National Museum was very small, including a few government civilians and military personnel (none of whom were conservators) from the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands.

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After the looting, Iraq National Museum staff had to deal with damaged objects left behind. What looters could not carry away, they often smashed, either out of malice or to obtain salable fragments. The museum conservation staff had little or no advanced conservation knowledge (United Nations sanctions had long prevented staff from receiving training), and broken objects languished in the conservation lab. Many cultural heritage professionals—including conservators, archaeologists, and curators—volunteered to assist but were denied entry because they were not part of their country's ministry of state team or part of a nongovernmental aid organization, which could enter the country with ease and set up operations. The few cultural professionals who entered Iraq did so using temporary press passes, or they were brought in by their governments to make assessments—not to perform conservation. (It would be nearly a year before the Italian government sent conservators to provide training for the Iraqi museum staff.)

To avoid these problems in the future, cultural heritage professionals need to work collaboratively. The obvious and best way to do this is to work within a nongovernmental organization modeled on humanitarian aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the International Committee of the Red Cross—in other words, the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) and its constituent organizations.

The Blue Shield Committees

The ICBS was inspired by the 1954 Hague Convention, which was the first international treaty focused exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. States Parties to the Hague Convention are a network of more than one hundred nations that have agreed to mitigate the consequences of armed conflict and to take preventive measures during peacetime, rather than during hostilities, when it is usually too late. (While neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has ratified the Convention, in 2004 the United Kingdom stated its intention to do so, and there is a movement under way to promote U.S. Senate ratification.)

The ICBS was founded in 1996 to work for the protection of cultural heritage by coordinating preparations to meet and respond to emergency situations; however, the ICBS essentially consists of only the directors of its constituent bodies: the Coordinating Council of Audio Visual Archives Associations, the International Council on Archives, the International Council of Museums, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the International Federation of Libraries and Archives.

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The Second Protocol of the Hague Convention, drafted in 1999, gave the ICBS a specific function under the Convention. Among other things, it asks parties to the Convention to consider registering a limited number of refuges, monumental centers, and other immovable cultural property in the International List of Cultural Property under Enhanced Protection (maintained by UNESCO); to consider marking certain important buildings and monuments with a special protective emblem of the Convention (the blue shield); to establish a system of protection for cultural heritage of the greatest importance for humanity; and to establish special units within the military responsible for protecting cultural property. The Second Protocol names ICBS as a nongovernmental organization with the relevant expertise to recommend specific cultural property for inclusion on the International List. ICBS and its constituent bodies are also named as eminent professional organizations with formal relations with UNESCO that can advise and assist the Committee of States Parties to the Hague Convention.

A number of countries have established national committees of the Blue Shield, which can play a crucial role in the execution of actions required by the Hague Convention. Currently there are seventeen established Blue Shield national committees and twenty committees under formation (see sidebar). Organizations representing museums, libraries, archives, and archaeological sites make up the membership of these national committees. National Blue Shield committees may focus on domestic or international needs and natural disasters, armed conflict, or both. Blue Shield committees can also help raise awareness about cultural property at risk from armed conflict and sometimes act in an advisory capacity to train cultural professionals or provide them with necessary expertise. Two national committees—one in the Netherlands and one in the United States—illustrate activities that committees might undertake to promote protection of cultural property.

During flooding in the Czech Republic in August 2002, the Dutch Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs financially aided Blue Shield Nederland (founded in 2000) to buy equipment to preserve paper objects in several Czech museums. Blue Shield Nederland also organized the transport of the equipment and the assistance of senior officers of the Dutch National Archive, who offered their expertise to begin the monumental task of paper conservation. The initiative began slowly, due to coordination and logistical problems; however, two thousand cubic meters of paper were frozen to preserve these materials in advance of treatment. (The experience acquired during this project enabled Blue Shield Nederland to provide similar assistance after the 2004 fire that destroyed the Anna Amalia Library in Germany.)

Blue Shield Nederland could act in this instance because there was no immediate threat to life, because the authorities cooperated fully, and because the usefulness of the project was unquestioned. It was also important that the request for help came from the National Committee of the Blue Shield of the Czech Republic itself. This Blue Shield project was executed within the regular cultural channels and therefore was quite effective. It was relatively easy to realize and could be replicated in other natural disasters.

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The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield (USCBS) was founded in 2006 in response to the looting and subsequent problems in providing international assistance to the Iraq National Museum. USCBS, a charitable nonprofit organization (as are all national committees), focuses on the following: offering cultural property protection training to U.S. military units deploying to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world; promoting U.S. ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention; and coordinating with domestic cultural heritage organizations and other national Blue Shield committees to provide a worldwide deployable force of cultural heritage professionals to advise and assist in the protection of cultural property damaged or threatened by armed conflict.

The military training program is the most active, providing instruction for Civil Affairs units. USCBS, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) each provide cultural heritage experts in their respective fields to present a daylong course on the identification and protection of cultural property in all media. This in turn gives Civil Affairs soldiers the basic knowledge to advise the commanders of the combat units they support on how to deal with cultural property protection issues. The training, funded by the organizations offering the training, is provided at no cost to the military. The response has been very positive, and a number of future sessions are scheduled.

Association of National Committees

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Since ICBS consists only of the directors of its constituent bodies, it lacks the ability to deploy personnel to assist in a cultural heritage emergency. For this reason, the ICBS and various Blue Shield national committees initiated the development of an Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS) in September 2006. ANCBS will serve as the central contact for requests for help to preserve endangered cultural heritage and provide administrative coordination of relief operations among other organizations. ANCBS will promote the Blue Shield organization, both in the heritage sector and among other relief organizations. Finally, it will maintain an international list of available specialists in the area of disaster prevention and containment in each member country, along with a central information and expertise center and Web site.

The city of The Hague has offered financial and logistical support for ANCBS to house its headquarters in that city. In the past year, the ANCBS working group has drafted organizational statutes, has begun developing a Web site, and has continued to assess its role alongside that of the ANCBS. In 2008 ANCBS plans to incorporate in the Netherlands and begin fund-raising to finance future operations with three goals in mind. First, it wants to provide expertise to cultural heritage organizations seeking advice on preventive measures, preservation, and restoration of cultural heritage through the self-help database on the Blue Shield Web site (in cooperation with expert organizations in this field). Second, it plans to develop teams of cultural heritage experts who will provide direct assistance to cultural heritage organizations affected by natural disasters or armed conflict, and it plans to provide the logistical means to deploy these experts where they are most needed (in a manner similar to that of organizations like Doctors Without Borders). And third, Blue Shield national committees will stimulate preventive measures by raising awareness and improving coordination with their respective governments and military organizations.

The success of these plans depends greatly on the level of participation and commitment of cultural heritage communities in each nation to their national Blue Shield committees—and on the development of national committees where they do not exist. As is the case with institutional emergency plans, this type of coordination cannot be done on an ad hoc basis in the midst of a disaster, nor can it be done amid turf battles among the various interested parties.It must be a long-term, coordinated, mutually beneficial process involving cultural heritage organizations from all sectors.

In the past, one of the most important measures to protect cultural property during armed conflict was the preventive planning done by institutions. During World War II, museums that succeeded in saving their collections began planning years in advance, using the same emergency planning techniques as always, but extending their worst-case scenario to the possibility of war. Emergency planning is even more important today, given the willful destruction and looting witnessed during recent conflicts and the possibility in many places of terrorist attacks. Cultural heritage organizations should recognize that government and military resources often do not have the expertise or available personnel to provide assistance, particularly if they are concerned with saving lives. Therefore, cultural heritage organizations must themselves assume responsibility for protecting collections and planning for the worst.

Cultural heritage professionals also have a responsibility to colleagues around the world to work together to protect heritage during armed conflict. The International Committee of the Blue Shield is the most logical umbrella organization under which this effort can be carried out. Blue Shield national committees, by uniting the many cultural heritage organizations and individual professionals within a nation, can better influence lawmakers, increase public awareness, and improve coordination with their respective militaries—which, as the situation in Iraq demonstrates, is crucial for protecting and preserving cultural heritage in war zones. The various national committees of the Blue Shield are also stronger when they band together as the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield, providing a central clearinghouse for requests and supporting an international network of cultural heritage professionals eager to help by putting their skills to use.

The choice is ours. If we, as cultural heritage professionals, continue to act as individuals and function within a variety of discrete organizations, we will almost certainly fail the next time colleagues in a war-torn country need us. However, if we unite in support of the Blue Shield organizations created to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict, we can make our voices heard and perhaps even be influential enough to prevent the "next time."

Corine Wegener is an associate curator in the department of Architecture, Design, Decorative Arts, Craft, and Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and president of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. Marjan Otter is a lecturer at the Reinwardt Academy for Museology in Amsterdam and secretary of Blue Shield Nederland, located in The Hague. Both are members of the ANCBS working group.



For further information, visit the following Web sites:

Blue Shield Nederland

U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield

Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield