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July 22, 2011

Laurie Rush on "Art Crime: Effects of a Global Issue at the Community Level"

by Mark Durney, Founder of Art Theft Central

At ARCA’s third annual international art crime conference in mid-July, Dr. Laurie Rush, the Booth Family Rome Prize Winner in Historic Preservation at the American Academy in Rome, presented on “Art Crime: Effects of a Global Issue at the Community Level.”

Dr. Rush’s lecture featured discussions of the role of military archaeologists in preventing the inadvertent damage and destruction of cultural heritage as well as limiting the illicit traffic in antiquities during the most recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Egypt. For example, academic archaeologists in cooperation with military and NATO personnel were able to develop a 'no strike list' of 'at risk sites' in Libya within 36 hours after US participation was announced.

During the most recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt, Dr. Rush worked with the Legacy Resource Management Program to create decks of playing cards inspired by the US military’s tradition of using playing cards as educational tools. However, rather than depict images of the most-wanted Iraqis like a previous deck, the Heritage Resource Preservation playing cards depict the challenges of preserving heritage during military operations as well as provide useful archaeological site preservation advice.

According to Dr. Rush, the constant rotation of military officers and the flux in standard practices that it creates can make it difficult to effectively maintain efforts to protect cultural heritage sites and institutions during conflicts. During the US-led military invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Garrison Commander  at the military base in Talil developed a strategy to protect Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, by incorporating it within the installation fences. While it was a simple risk mitigation strategy, it enabled the US to effectively secure the site and protect it from potential looting. In 2009, the US returned control of the ancient site, which had been preserved in pristine condition, to the Iraqi authorities.

Rush believes that the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, which has been sent into numerous conflict zones in order to train local leaders and military personnel in the protection of cultural sites and institutions, should serve as a model for other countries that seek to develop similar cultural heritage preservation efforts. Currently, while based in Rome, Rush is working closely with the Carabinieri and examining their best practices. In addition to working with the military to protect sites during conflict, Dr. Rush stressed the need to focus attention and resources on developing strategies to maintain cultural heritage sites in the immediate aftermath of conflicts. Managing sites as community assets and rebuilding tourist attractions are critical to attracting local and international investment and attention. Dr. Rush believes that such efforts can be spearheaded by partnerships between academic institutions and government organizations.