LectureHop: Cultural Heritage In Conflict Zones

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The ruins of the Ummayyad Mosque in Aleppo

Bwogger Cara Hudson-Erdman got intellectual this Friday and attended a lecture at the Italian Academy. This discussion focused global intervention in the protection of cultural monuments in war zones and the role of sovereignty versus international responsibility. Through a wave of witty academic banter, posh British accents, and overuse of the word “colleague,” the key question of the event was: is there an international responsibility to protect cultural heritage sites when states fail to do so?

At Columbia, we students find ourselves inundated with references to antiquity just by walking into the library,  and we often forget that sites of their origin are under threat of destruction. At the Italian Academy, the International Observatory for Cultural Heritage Lecture addressed this topic, titled Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones: Protecting the Past for the Future. The keynote speaker was James Cuno, the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, who is a major proponent of the idea of a universal cultural heritage and an advocate international intervention to protect cultural sites at risk of destruction. In particular, Cuno spoke about the situation in Syria, where in the midst of a civil war ISIS has destroyed sites such as the Ummayyad Mosque in Aleppo. Cuno emphasized that this destruction should be considered cultural cleansing as well as an indicator of genocide.

In the face of a failing state, Syria, a country whose map resembles a “jigsaw puzzle,” Cuno argued that there is a moral responsibility for other powers to intervene to protect these valuable historic sites. His reasoning stems from his idea that artistic and cultural monuments belong to a shared, international heritage that transcends national borders and states. The moderator, Columbia’s Professor David Freedberg, identified Cuno as “untrendy” for propagating such beliefs, characterizing them as values of the Enlightenment, and the same ones that bolster encyclopedic museums such as the British Museum. Cuno was also joined by a panel of art history and political science experts including Vishakha Desai, former president of the Asia Society, Thomas Weiss, professor of political science at CUNY and an expert in state sovereignty, Edward Luck, a SIPA professor and former advisor to Ban-Ki Moon, and Mariët Westermann from the Mellon Foundation.

Each speaker noted the importance of considering the protection of human lives and cultural sites as one and the same. Thomas Weiss explained that he used to ask the question “If we can’t get ourselves together to protect humans, then how the hell can we protect these monuments?” before coming to the realization that this such separations between humans and culture hold no meaning. In discussing the connection between genocide and destruction of cultural sites, the panel came to a general consensus on the existence of a common humanity that shares an international culture, thus meriting intervention to protect valuable sites, possibly through the R2P doctrine (Responsibility to Protect) even if it means overriding another state’s sovereignty.

What I found most interesting was the discussion of the legacy of colonialism and how this affects the methods and strategies of international political intervention, especially in the Middle East. Vishakha Desai highlighted how the effects of colonial plundering in the 19th century are still raw, thus calling for a more open exchange and dialogue between countries with the goal to intervene in conflict zones with the aim of cultural conservation. Though Thomas Weiss also brought up the discussion of cosmopolitanism versus nativism when confronted the idea of a ‘shared heritage,’ these points seemed secondary to Cuno’s defense of the idea of all peoples having a stake in any expression of culture around the world. Despite the sparse consideration for the legacy of colonialism in the doctrine of intervention, one thing was left clear: the loss of human lives and the ruins of cultural sites like the Ummayyad Mosque go hand in hand, and the world cannot afford to let such destruction continue.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


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