Museums and heritage institutions around the world have widely condemned President Trump’s threat to target 52 cultural sites in Iran.
In a tweet following the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, the US president threatened to hit 52 “very high level and important sites”, including those of cultural significance, if Iran attacked American citizens or US assets. This would amount to a war crime by international standards.
The International Council of Museums (Icom) and the World Monuments Fund were among the institutions to condemn the president’s statement for violating international law.
Icom said that such action would defy several international treaties ratified by the US, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
The World Monuments Fund described any threat to cultural property as “completely unacceptable,” stating: “We call on people and governments everywhere to stand up for the protection of our shared heritage. We cannot continue to let political differences threaten one of the few things that unites us all – our shared global heritage.”
The UK government formally ratified the 1954 Hague Convention in 2017 and has confirmed that it would not support the US in such attacks.
The last two decades have shown that culture remains under threat from political ideologies and violent conflict. In response, cultural protection has become a growing field, with several initiatives launched in recent years aimed at safeguarding heritage during conflict, as well as man-made and natural disasters.
The UK government has committed to protecting cultural property around the world through the creation of the Cultural Protection Fund in 2016, and the Cultural Property Protection Unit, a military unit that revives the “Monuments Men” of the second world war, which was set up in 2019.
The Cultural Protection Fund is a partnership between the British Council and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that aims to protect heritage at risk from conflict in 12 countries in and around the Middle East and Africa. The fund was set up for two reasons – in response to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, particularly following the devastating attack on Palmyra by Isis, and as part of the UK’s overall commitment to ratify the Hague Convention. In November 2019, the UK government invested a further £10m to extend the scheme into 2021.
Since launching, 51 grants have been awarded to protect cultural heritage and provide social and economic opportunities for communities in the region, including Yazidis, nomadic Bedouins and Syrian refugees.
“Cultural protection is vital for identity and belonging,” says Stephen Stenning, head of arts and society at the British Council. “We’ve seen how important preserving cultural heritage is for our future, not just because we have valuable things from the past that we need to protect, but because there are tangible other benefits – for community cohesion, understanding the place you live or creating a hub for economic activity.”
With an extra year of funding secured, the Cultural Protection Fund will explore the potential to expand its scope geographically, as well as thematically, to include cultural property threatened by the climate crisis or man-made disasters.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) Culture in Crisis programme exists to support similar cultural heritage preservation projects around the world, working with partners internationally to share knowledge and information. In December, the museum launched an online portal designed to be the world’s largest database on cultural heritage preservation.
In a statement published in the Art Newspaper, V&A director Tristram Hunt condemned “the normalisation of cultural warfare” and called for Trump’s threat to Iran “to be unequivocally condemned by political leaders, as well as university and museum professionals”.
The V&A is scheduled to host Epic Iran, a major exhibition on Iranian art and design, from this October to April 2021, and Hunt confirmed the museum is determined to go ahead with plans for the exhibition, despite escalating political challenges.
The vulnerability of culture in conflict zones was also at the heart of the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) Culture Under Attack season, which closed the day after the US president's tweet brought the issue to global attention. Three temporary exhibitions at the museum's London site examined why cultural heritage is attacked during war, and the ways people work to save, protect and restore what is targeted.
Visitors were invited to share their views in interactive polls at the end of each exhibition. In a poll conducted by IWM and Historic England as part of the What Remains exhibition, one figure is particularly resonant in light of recent events: out of 12,435 responses, 76% of respondents stated that that culture should not be destroyed in order to win a war.
“The poll results emphasise an extraordinary response from museum visitors,” says Paris Agar, senior curator of Cold War and late 20th century conflict.
“When dealing with the idea of conflict, people will undoubtedly have human lives at the forefront of their minds. As curators, our role is to delve deeper, to explore and explain the complexity surrounding contemporary issues such as this.
“What we set out to illustrate is that culture is an integral part of people’s lives, which is why it is targeted in these situations."
Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, says governments and institutions should take a long view of history to prevent further attacks on global heritage.
“The Museums Association condemns the proposed targeting of Iran cultural sites,” she says. “While Trump’s tweet might be rhetoric, we should understand that there is a long and sorry history of aggressor nations targeting cultural property in order to undermine and weaken regimes that they are opposed to.”
“As a nation Iran has many historical and cultural sites that are of international significance – an attack on them is an attack on all our heritage.
“In the UK we should also recognise that many of our collections contain artefacts that were deliberately and forcibly taken in times of conflict and empire, including from the area that now constitutes Iran. It’s important to reflect on how our collections ended up here, and work with our communities to ensure that new voices and stories are told.”
Image credit: Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons
Update: This article was updated on 14 January. Historic England co-curated the What Remains exhibition during the Culture Under Attack season at IWM and work across the sector to help protect cultural heritage.