On June 23, 2016, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative hosted “An evening of discussion about cultural heritage and human rights” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The event featured comments by Karima Bennoune (United Nations Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, Human Rights Council) and a screening of The Destruction of Memory, a film written, directed, and produced by Tim Slade. Additionally, Dr. Brian Daniels (Director of Research and Programs, University of Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center) and Corine Wegener (Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Smithsonian Institution) launched their new project, the Conflict Culture Research Network.
The night began with remarks from Karima Bennoune. She began by laying out the definition of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, and emphasized that “all humanity has a link to such objects, which represent the ‘cultural heritage of all [hu]mankind.’” Bennoune also described
the history of international cultural property legislation, providing an overview of the Hague Convention, the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, among others. After reviewing the relevant historical and legal backgrounds, she presented her theoretical framework: cultural destruction is a human rights issue. Bennoune argued that the destruction of cultural and religious landmarks are “an assault on human identity and on human being.” Bennoune noted that this is an underdeveloped, but vital, theoretical model, as it “obliges one to take into account the rights of individuals and groups in relation to such object or manifestation and, in particular, to connect cultural heritage with its source of production.”
As Special Rapporteur, Bennoune gives twice-yearly reports to the Untied Nations, and her second address is forthcoming. She presented her preliminary recommendations for the UN, shown below:
91. With regard to the issue of international destruction of cultural heritage, the Special Rapporteur recommends that the States
a. Respect and protect cultural heritage, the right of everyone to use and enjoy cultural heritage should be limited only as a last resort and in compliance with international law.
b. Ratify the core cultural heritage conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its 1954 and 1999 protocols, and urgently enact implementing legislation so as to enable full implantation of these conventions.
She continued by emphasizing that we have the foundational legislation needed to stop these events from happening, but we have little means of implementation, which Bennoune believes is the missing link, for “accountability is critical.” With this, Bennoune stressed that the media, scholars, and the public should give equal attention to preservation and reconstruction efforts that we give to destruction. These suggestions, among others, will be presented in her report to the UN about cultural heritage as a human rights issue in October 2016.
Her remarks ended with the reading of a moving and poignant poem:
The people of the new millennium are
determined to reduce their ruins to the dust of ruins…
Palmyra collapse on its own rubble.
Petra will follow, along with Nineveh and Nuppur.
Alexandria and Heliopolis, blindfolded, await their turn to return to dust
-Salah El Khalfa Beddiari, forthcoming in Les murmeures etouffes de l’Historie
Bennoune’s human rights framework was the perfect precursor to the screening of The Destruction of Memory. Written, directed, and proceeded by Tim Slade, the film is based off Robert Bevan’s book of the same name. Reviewers have claimed the film to be “ambitious, exciting, deeply important and timely,” “bold and beautiful,” “gripping, moving, educational,” and “an absolutely incredibly achievement.” The Destruction of Memory follows the historical origins of architectural and cultural destruction, starting in the early 1900s with World War I, and continues to the destruction of the Old City Aleppo in 2013. Slade also discusses the current technological advances being made to preserve cultural heritage, such as projects directed by CyArk.
The night ended with Dr. Brian Daniels launching the new research initiative, Conflict Culture Research Network. This research network is based around the question of why the destruction of cultural heritage is happening. This question was posed in The Destruction of Memory, but has not received much formal academic attention until now. The researchers are looking to bring together a diverse community of heritage and military scholars to develop basic data about conflict and the impact it has on cultural heritage. The NSF-funded project is spearheaded by Dr. Brian Daniels, Dr. Richard M. Leventhal, Corine Wegener, and Dr. Susan Wolfinbarger. Read more about the launch of the Conflict Culture Research Network here.
Ultimately, the event provided a fascinating overview about the history of cultural heritage destruction and the pedagogical methods behind the academic study of this destruction. It was a poignant reminder of the threats that face humankind every day. To help this community of scholars, consider working with or donating to SAFE.
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