Protecting culture

Protection fund would be boon for Middle East
Peter Stone
The past year or so has been utterly depressing for anyone interested in the protection of our common heritage. Archaeological sites, historic buildings, libraries, archives and art collections have been damaged and specifically targeted across the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Libya, Mali, Syria and northern Iraq.

Those who tried to stop such damage have been killed, including the 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al Asaad, who worked and lived in Palmyra all his life and was beheaded and, as some reports suggest, tortured by Isis.

More recently, two guards, A’srawy Kamel Jad and Ali Khalaf Shaker, were killed by unknown looters at the Egyptian site of Deir el-Bersha. Others, such as Qassem Abdullah Yehya, who died at the Citadel in Damascus, have been killed by seemingly stray munitions while going about their daily work. Dark times, indeed.

All is not utter gloom, however, and a few positive steps have been taken. For example, working with the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield, the British Army set up a cultural property protection working group in 2014. It now appears that we are close to the formation of a specialised cultural property protection unit within British forces to provide advice wherever and whenever they are deployed.

A long-term relationship between the Blue Shield and Nato-affiliated Civilian/Military Centre of Excellence in the Netherlands led to the publication of a 78-page booklet, Cultural Property Protection Makes Sense last year.

And then, somewhat out of the blue, on 21 June 2015 the British government announced three things: that it was going to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that the chancellor was to commit to a new fund to “specifically protect cultural heritage and recovery from acts of destruction”; and that the culture secretary was going to call a summit of leading cultural figures to “tackle cultural destruction”.

While the government has made a commitment to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on an almost annual basis since 2004, it seems there is now a real intention to do so. There is a good chance that an announcement will be made in the 2016 Queen’s Speech – not a moment too soon.

The summit came and went on 28 October and was more of a press opportunity than substantive debate on how to tackle cultural destruction. On the same day, it was announced that the British Museum was to be given £3m to deliver a programme of in-depth and specialised training to establish a dedicated corps of 50 Iraqi heritage professionals, skilled to deal with the aftermath of the destruction by Isis of key archaeological sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra.

However, the news that took everyone by surprise was buried on page 97 of last November’s comprehensive spending review: “The UK will provide international support for cultural heritage in global conflict zones, with £30m in official development assistance funding between 2016-17 and 2019-20 for a new Cultural Protection Fund.”

As yet, there is no firm clarity over how the money will be spent (apart from the £3m already allocated to the British Museum). The British Council will manage the fund and has set up a small, internally funded team to lead on this.

A consultation as to how the fund should be best used ran from 14 January to 19 February, and two workshops to gather ideas have also been held.

At the time of writing, we still await the formal Department for Culture, Media and Sport response to the consultation. But if used sensibly, such provision needs to be applauded as a real contribution to the long-term protection of the cultural heritage of the Middle East.

Is this a small chink of positive light at the end of a dark tunnel?

Peter Stone is a professor of heritage studies and the head of the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University.

He is also the Unesco chair in cultural property protection and peace, and has advised the UK government on the identification and protection of cultural heritage in Iraq.

The print edition of Museums Journal is out on 1 April

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