Museum and heritage bodies worldwide have been responding to the intensifying conflict in Israel and Palestine, and the worsening humanitarian emergency in Gaza.
More than 1,400 Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas militants on 7th October, and at least 9,770 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli military action since the war began.
The war has led to calls on museum sector bodies and cultural institutions to release statements in support of both Israel and Palestine.
In a statement on 25 October, the International Council of Museums (Icom) said: “Icom expresses its deep concern about the current violence affecting Israeli and Palestinian civilians and deplores the significant humanitarian consequences that the conflict has had over the past weeks. Icom extends its sincerest condolences to those who have lost family, friends, and community due to the violence.
“Icom stands firm in its commitment to preserving cultural heritage and recalls the imperative of all parties to respect international law and conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols.”
Icom warned about a potential increase in the smuggling and destruction of cultural objects due to the conflict, citing international legal obligations that work to prevent the illicit import, export, and transfer of cultural property, such as the 1970 Unesco Convention and the 1995 Unidroit Convention.
The statement continued: “Icom thus expects an immediate ceasefire in respect of international humanitarian law in order to prevent further loss of human life and safeguard cultural heritage – which is essential to our collective humanity – and reaffirms its commitment to the principles of peace, understanding, and unity through the preservation and protection of cultural heritage.”
On 21 October, before Icom released its statement, the board of Icom-Israel and the directors of museums in Israel wrote a letter urging the organisation to take a “strong stance” in relation to the 7th October massacre.
The letter said: “Although we are aware of the critiques aimed at Israel, it is crucial to stress that the horrific attacks carried out by Hamas, backed by Iran, have no excuse, and we vehemently oppose any effort at reasoning them out. Hamas's activities amount to nothing less than the heinous murder, rape, torture, and detention of defenceless civilians. We demand that Icom condemn these acts of terror with the utmost fervour.”
Cultural institutions in Arab countries have voiced their support for Gaza. Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates wrote: "We stand firmly in solidarity with Palestinians in the face of the devastating genocide of Gazans and the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation. We will continue to use our platforms to foreground Palestinian perspectives and experiences in the struggle against settler colonialism."
In the same week, more than 2,000 artists and creative practitioners signed an open letter demanding an immediate ceasefire, describing Israel’s bombing of Gaza as “collective punishment on an unimaginable scale”.
The letter had repercussions for some signatories following criticism that it failed to explicitly condemn the attacks by Hamas. One of the publications that originally circulated the letter, Artforum, fired its editor David Velasco, saying the letter did not meet editorial standards. Four other employees resigned in protest at Velasco's sacking.
More than 140 organisations, cultural workers and artists took part in a global strike for Palestine on 20 October 2023. The Mosaic Rooms art gallery in London, which participated in the strike, said in a statement: “As we watch the ongoing bombing and killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the indiscriminate destruction of its buildings and infrastructure by the Israeli army, we cannot stand by in silence. The violence on the Palestinians in Gaza is unconscionable, inhumane, and illegal.”
Meanwhile the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh, USA, has been criticised for postponing the exhibition, Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art, citing concerns that it could be "traumatic" for some people, and would put front of house staff in "the impossible position of discussing the war". In response, a Muslim civil rights group said the museum's decision was "disheartening" and had "the potential to incite harm in the Pittsburgh Muslim community".
In a statement on 1 November, the Museums Association said: "We unequivocally condemn the targeting of civilians, human rights abuses and war crimes, and extend our condolences to everyone who has lost family and friends to violence. We support efforts to uphold international law and secure peace and believe the only way to resolve the situation is through dialogue."
Cultural heritage in Gaza
Icom-Arab has confirmed to Museums Journal that two important museums in Gaza, Al Qarara Cultural Museum and Rafah Museum, have been completely destroyed by Israeli airstrikes.
Other museums in Gaza include Qasr al-Basha (Pasha's Palace Museum), Gaza City Al Mat'haf, and the Yasser Arafat Foundation, in addition to at least eight significant archaeological heritage sites.
Blue Shield, the international network that works to protect cultural heritage in times of emergency, said in a statement on 1 November: “While the protection of human life and dignity must always be the first priority in any crisis, protecting people and protecting their cultural heritage are indelibly intertwined […]
"Under customary international law, all parties in a conflict must recognise that civilians, and civilian objects (which includes their cultural property), are also protected, and must be respected.”
According to Blue Shield, unverified reports suggest that there has been significant damage to heritage sites across Gaza, including the destruction of the mosque of Jabalia and damage to the historic centre of Gaza, where there are reports of damage to several sites including the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the oldest Christian Church in Gaza, built in the 1150s, where 16 people were killed in an airstrike on 20 October.
Its statement continued: “Under international law, all parties to conflict are expected to: commit to taking all feasible actions to safeguard and respect cultural property located in areas where armed conflict is taking place; avoid using cultural property and its immediate surroundings as part of their military operations in a way that may cause or lead to damage and destruction; avoid targeting cultural property unless there is military necessity; prevent looting; avoid reprisals directed at cultural property; and protect and support those involved in the protection of cultural heritage.”