Class of 2016
On September 24, 2015, Wellesley College hosted a conference entitled, Erasing the Past: Da’esh and the Crisis of Antiquities Destruction. Jointly sponsored by the College’s History and Religious Studies departments, the conference hosted a group of international scholars, cultural heritage specialists and journalists who reflected on the scope of the continuing crisis in Iraq and Syria. The conference participants provided grounded and informative commentary on the Islamic State’s use of social media to circulate messages of violence, power and ruthlessness. The topics of the conference sessions provided attendees with a sense of the regions’ cultural devastation and ideas as to how the identities of these peoples can be protected and restored.
I had the opportunity to attend two of the conference’s sessions. Professor Morag Kersel of DePaul University’s Anthropology Department presented on the topic of antiquity looting. She ultimately argued that preventing antiquity looting in the future would require behavioral change, as opposed to continued law enforcement. Kersel contended that advocacy campaigns have been successful in the past, such as the campaign to shame individuals who fashion animal skins and furs or collectors of ivory objects. She believes that society at large should render looting as antisocial behavior. According to Kersel, encouraging the general public to actively engage in this type of moral marketing would corrode the attractiveness of and participation in this trade.
I also attended the presentation of Professor Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University’s College of Law regarding the abilities and limitations of international law in the context of cultural heritage preservation first multilateral treaties that addressed the conducts of warfare
. Professor Gerstenblith discussed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the first multilateral treaties that addressed the conducts of warfare negotiated at two international peace conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands. The 1863 Lieber Code, signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the United States’ Civil War, guided these conventions and ultimately yielded regulations for wartime conduct that prohibited both the pillage, seizure and damage of cultural heritage and the requirement that sites be marked with a distinctive sign.
Professor Gerstenblith highlighted, however, that the ratification of these treatises is voluntary, therefore many of these regulations are useless when not enforced, and war crime tribunals are only applied to the defeated – not to the victors. Professor Gerstenblith argued, therefore, that the most successful approaches to cultural heritage preservation involve the training of local people in the logistics of protection and the training of the military.
I also had the opportunity to speak with some of the panelists during the conference lunch break. I asked the presenters what they believe to be missing from the mainline news outlets regarding the topic of cultural heritage protection in the Middle East. Professor Patty Gerstenblith and Charles Jones of Penn State University both agreed that accuracy and precision were missing from the discussion. Jones lamented the fact that much of the looted material is undocumented, therefore the world will never know, nor will it see, objects that have been stolen or destroyed. He highlighted that such devastation negatively affects education and scholarship.
Prof. Gerstenblith observed that the media is only interested if such devastation is linked to ISIS and its ruthless behavior. She stated that little emphasis is placed on art in times of war and oftentimes its destruction is excused for military purposes. She argued that the actions of ISIS in the Middle East constitute cultural genocide. The group’s leaders seek to “tear down reminders of the Assad Regime,” that is, their tangible national symbols. Dr. Salam al-Kuntar of the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Department, offered similar sentiments saying that the media’s largest focus is on ISIS and its brutish behavior, as opposed to the state of Aleppo because its stories are “more of the same, there is nothing new to report.”
I also asked what they would say if they had the ability to relay one thing about the Erasing the Past conference to the greater public. Professor Gerstenblith said that, if anything, this conference, with its abundance of panelists and sessions, highlights that this topic is “more complicated than we realize.” Charles Jones also commented on the variety of speakers saying that these events and discussions attract “new people each time” indicating a “raised consciousness” and the positive power of PR in escalating issues of cultural heritage protection. Finally, Dr. al-Kuntar said that this conference, among others, demonstrates the “efforts of academics and scholars in understanding the complexities of cultural heritage preservation.”
Ultimately, the conference yielded productive conversation regarding all aspects of the intricacy of cultural heritage protection during times of crisis. The conference also exhibited the lack of clear protocol regarding actions that can be taken to achieve successful preservation. However, the passion, interest and intellect of the conference participants provide hope in the creation of such a protocol that would coordinate the protection not only of the material objects and symbols of a people, but also of the physical markers of culture, nation and identity.