September 22, 2014

Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield Meeting at the Hirshhorn Museum: the 60th Anniversary of the 1954 Hague Convention Celebrated with a Meeting of Great Minds and Efforts

Harry Ettlinger speaking at the Hirschhorn
by Kirsten Hower, Social Networking Correspondent and List-Serve Manager

Keynote speaker Harry Ettlinger, World War II veteran and former Monuments Men, opened Friday's SI/USCBS meeting with an inspiring keynote speech: “For the first time in the history of human civilization, instead of taking art that did not belong to us, we gave it back to its rightful owners.”

The annual meeting of the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, held at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, recognized the 60th Anniversary of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The timing was equally appropriate as the day before marked the fifth anniversary of the United States' ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention. 

Ettlinger, who made the audience both laugh and cry as he recounted stories of his life and time as a Monuments Man, was joined by many other great men and women who reported on the current state of efforts being made to protect and preserve the world's cultural heritage.

After a much earned standing ovation, Ettlinger yielded the podium to Major Thomas (Tommy) Livoti who spoke on behalf of Brigadier General Hugh Van Roosen about the beginnings of the formation of the 21st century "Monuments Men." Though only in it's infancy, this program will seek to recruit cultural heritage professionals "under the guise of a military initiative" to protect the world's heritage that is threatened by armed conflict.

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding
by Dr. Nancy Wilkie and Dr. Richard Kurin
The first half of the meeting was rounded off by quick speeches by Dr. Patty Gerstenblith and Dr. Laurie Rush, both board members of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. Gerstenblith, of DePaul University, spoke about what has happened in the 60 years since the 1954 Hague Convention, both the successes and the challenges still to be faced. Rush, who works as an Army civilian for Cultural Resources at Fort Drum, NY, spoke briefly about the annual meeting of the Combatant Command Heritage Action Group who had met the day before. Their report, which Rush quickly summarized, will soon be available at www.cchag.org.

The second half of the meeting was started by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, who gave a stirring speech about the horrors of cultural destruction that we are witnessing in the world and the efforts being made to bring them to a halt: “We are trying, ladies and gentlemen, to give a concrete reaction to extremist actions…[that the destruction of people and cultural heritage] are crimes against humanity.... Attacks against culture are attacks against people, their identity, their history, and their future.” Bokova ended on a serious but somewhat optimistic note that while the art market is in dire need of more education on the challenges facing cultural heritage during this time, a new consciousness is emerging that could help in the efforts to stem this wanton destruction.

Following Bokova’s speech was a panel of sobering reports from Dr. Brian Daniels, Dr. Salam Al Kuntar, Dr. Susan Wolfinbarger, Dr. Katharyn Hanson, Corine Wegener, Dr. Sarah Parcak, and Dr. Amr Al Azm. Each presenter spoke about the multiple projects that they are part of that are attempting to document and prevent destruction of cultural heritage.

Wolfinbarger (AAAS) and Hanson (U. Penn Cultural Heritage Center) spoke about the ongoing turmoil in places such as Syria, Iraq, and the Thai/Cambodian border, as well as the documented satellite imagery that follows the turmoil.

Parcak (University of Alabama) spoke about “Protecting the Past from Space,” how cultural heritage experts can better track the motions of looting of archaeological sites using satellite imagery and technology.

Kuntar (U. Penn) and Wegener (Smithsonian) spoke about the amazing efforts of locals in conflict areas that are doing everything in their power to preserve cultural heritage sites and objects. Both Kuntar and Wegener have been involved in efforts to educate and supply locals with the best means to continue their preservation efforts.

Amr Al Azm (Shawnee State University) spoke about the cultural heritage of Syria (a main focus for much of the panel) and how it must be preserved to act as a common ground for the Syrians once the conflict is resolved. He closed his speech with a poignant statement that while he and his colleagues are often called “modern day Monuments Men,” that he does not want to be referred to as such; the real “Monuments Men” are the the locals, the ones putting their lives on the line to protect their heritage.

Daniels (U.Penn Cultural Heritage Center) rounded off the panel discussing his work in educating locals in conflict areas about emergency preservation methods and his studies of heritage in conflict situations, which will be launching it’s new website in October (www.heritageinconflict.org). 

The meeting ended with two joyous events; the first being the awarding of the USCBS Award for Meritorious Military Service in Protection of Cultural Property to Brigadier General Erik C. Peterson, Commanding General, US Army Special Operations Aviation Command. His work at Fort Drum alongside Dr. Laurie Rush have been an example of the actions that can be taken to protect and preserve the world’s cultural heritage.

The final event of the evening was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding by Dr. Richard Kurin (Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Smithsonian Institution) and Dr. Nancy Wilkie (President, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield). This memorandum creates a bond between the Smithsonian and the USCBS; that they will endeavor to support each other in the education of cultural heritage professionals as well as locals in conflict areas, and to provide the means with which to do this.

The meeting served as a reminder of the tragedies befalling cultural heritage sites and objects in areas of armed conflict, but also of the hope and initiative that so many are taking to protect these sites and these objects.

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