On being prepared…

Why does art suffer in wartime? Judge Tompkins[1] believes that several reasons for art suffering during wartime is due to: intentional destruction, collateral damage, plunder/booty, avarice, opportunism, religious fervour, cultural dominance, political advantage, dynastic possessiveness, megalomania, profit, bloody-mindedness, and ignorance.

Art is multifaceted: it performs, fulfils, and functions. Art might satisfy the function of private ownership, pleasure and prestige just as it illustrates the shared values that underpin a city-state, community, society or religion. Art can represent doctrinal teaching, glory and the reaffirmation of faith just as it can educate and speak to the greater populous. It can take on a propagandist role, representing the values that national rulers want to endorse and exercise. There are so many avenues for why art is destroyed, lost, damaged and stolen but what is being done to prevent these acts from taking place?

Figure 1: Risk management sign

Beneath the banner of disaster preparedness sit the following four categories: preventing, preparing, responding and recovering[2]. The concept of “risk” delineates that undesirable change may occur in context within museum collections or single collection, instigating the need to establish a risk management approach. In war being highly cautious of risks is essential to forming adequate means for minimizing potential for damage, but being ‘flexible’ in implementing change in procedure is also necessary[3]. So how do we record damage? How can we support the preservation and restoration of heritage under fire? What is being done to implement change and how can we help in the period of reconstruction? From these questions Waller[4] summarises the following four core considerations:

1. All potential risks to collections

2. The magnitude and scale has to be assessed

3. Mitigation strategies should then be identified

4. Concluding with evaluating strategy costs and benefits

A risk management approach should be common procedure in protecting cultural collections. A disaster plan not only acts as a procedural means for organising complexities, but also delineates where best to apply limited resources. Linking history, value with any current and/or outstanding social, environmental or political happenings in and around collections encourages a heightened sense of awareness. The result is proactive preparedness in the case of a disaster. By being aware of and prepared for any risk officials can respond quickly and succinctly to any sudden and potentially destructive scenario. The GICHD Bow Tie Analysis (see figure 2) is useful for analysing events that may have more than one possible cause that can lead to a range of consequences[5].

Figure 2: GICHD Bow Tie Analysis

Idlib museum in northwestern Syria presents a case study that stresses the need for having a plan in war. For many years Idlib was the stronghold of the Syrian resistance. However, in Spring 2015 museum workers were informed of an imminent onslaught of rebel fighters and immediately set to work safeguarding their collections. They moved the art and artefacts from highly visible exhibits into plastic crates, sealing the entire collection in several underground vaults. This mitigation strategy worked as a quick, failsafe option but the museum was unprepared for the scale of damage that was to about to occur. Within days the city of Idlib was overtaken by a coalition of dissident troops and during this time a barrel bomb struck the storeroom, exposing all the contents. Although anti-government forces refused museum staffers access to the bombsite, and despite the collections having been buried and sealed into walled rooms, it was later reported that the unprotected items were looted.

It is unknown the extent of the looting that took place in 2015, of which the greatest concern for Ayman Nabu[6] from the Syrian Idlib Antiquities Centre (IAC) were the missing 15, 000 cuneiform tablets. In 2016 Syria Direct published photographs taken at the rural headquarters of Jund al-Aqsa in the Idlib region, which clearly showed the museum’s plastic boxes filled with pottery shards in numbered bags[7]. Very few items plundered from Idlib museum resurfaced and, of those recovered, fewer still were returned to the IAC. With the fate of the remaining artefacts being largely unclear, alongside the evident lack of restitution taking place, Nabu[8] conveyed: ‘Unfortunately, under these circumstances the opposition areas have become a thriving black market for artefacts’.

Advisory panels have formulated in response to the illicitly trafficked art and artefacts flowing out of Syria. The bodies involved support proactive prevention, preparation, response and recovery. So what is being done to implement change and what shall be done to help in the period of reconstruction? In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Special Rapporteur placed cultural heritage destruction and cultural heritage protection firmly on the human right’s agenda[9]. Following this the 2017 Heritage for Peace report stressed that in times of armed conflict many people believe that it is not possible to prevent the destruction of sites on the ground[10]. However, the desire to protect what is there is motivated by a certain universal truth: that being proactive rather than reactive is more beneficial in the long-term.

Humanity as a whole has a stake in the cultural property of any given region. The Heritage for Peace report compiled by Leonardo Leckie, Emma Cunliffe, and Bastien Varoutsikos addresses the significant steps made with national and international support. When reviewing the Heritage for Peace report in 2017 the National and International Responses towards the Syrian crisis addressed seven core solutions to help assist in the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage.

  • Projects (such as restoration, looting prevention) and documentation initiatives
  • Awareness raising (conferences, exhibitions)
  • Laws, legislation and resolutions
  • Workshops, training and courses
  • Military operations
  • Publications (policies, reports, articles and maps)
  • General category

The seven solutions established by the 2017 Heritage for Peace report can be positively implemented towards safeguarding art in war. They address activities undertaken from the start of the crisis in March 2011 and suggest that ‘by continuing to look for ways to improve and increase international cooperation, it will make it easier to give practical help to Syrian individuals and groups’[11]. One such group that seeks to establish a core base of knowledge and systematic prioritisation of heritage protection is Shirin.

The Shirin International Protecting Syria Heritage initiative forms a global community of scholars who are active in the field of archaeology, art and history of the Ancient Near East. They are an example of an international enterprise that identifies cases in which emergency repairs and protective action may be required, based upon a comprehensive database of elements. By working with members who have experience and expertise of architectural and artefactual information Shirin aims actively support the establishment of inventories for relevant sites, buildings and museums in cooperation with Syrian authorities, international bodies and other NGOs[12]. They firmly stand to avoid situations like that at Idlib museum.

Figure 3: Bradshaw R 2018, Idlib museum throws open doors in defiance of threats, Al-Monitor, 31 August 2018, viewed 12 September 2019 from <https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/did-idlib-museum-open-too-early.html&gt;

Yet Shirin is not the only network set to mobilise locally, nationally and internationally in response to art crime in war. Other volunteer networks have helped recover looted items of cultural significance that were illicitly taken, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) being one[13]. Knowledge of the art market, how we archive information, and how we creatively and philosophically maintain the “human element” all contribute towards risk management. As indicated in Shirin’s approach, rigorous research around ethics, law and education can encourage practical and sustainable approaches to mitigating disaster preparedness and prevention if a catastrophe were to occur.

Centuries of war have stripped bare art, both instigator and victim in conflict. Art is a thing of beauty and prestige; an expression or realm according to aesthetic principles; the embodiment of an idea that has more than ordinary significance; a reinforcement or denigration of political or social independence; an employment or displacement of religious symbolism. It is a dangerous tool in war. To seize an artwork is to control, reinforce, and denigrate power. Therefore, museums should always be prepared. Cultural heritage is a unique type of public property and institutions housing significant items should thoroughly record their collections in order to support the preservation, restoration and repatriation of their heritage under fire.


[1] Tomkins A 2019, ‘Art in War’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 31 July 2019.

[2] Söderlund K 2000, Be Prepared Guidelines for Small Museums for Writing a Disaster Preparedness Plan, Commonwealth of Australia, Heritage Collections Council Project, p. 3.

[3] Ashley-Smith J 2002, 2003, ‘Sustainability and Precaution’ in Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation, Staniforth S (Eds.), The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, Paul Getty Trust, p. 360.

[4] Waller R R 1995, ‘Risk Management Applied to Preventive Conservation’ in Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation, Staniforth S (Eds.), The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, Paul Getty Trust, p. 327

[5] Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) 2015, Management of Residual Explosive Remnants of War (MORE), Geneva, Switzerland, p. 19

[6] Gibbon K F 2017, ‘Syrian Museum Wants Art Looted by Syrian Soldiers Back’ in Cultural Property News, 20 September 2017, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://culturalpropertynews.org/syrian-museum-wants-art-looted-by-syrian-soldiers-back/&gt;

[7] Hourani N, Nelson M 2016, ‘Some looted Idlib National Museum artifacts resurface, fate of others a mystery amidst ‘thriving black market trade’’ in Syria Direct, 18 October 2016, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://syriadirect.org/news/some-looted-idlib-national-museum-artifacts-resurface-fate-of-others-a-mystery-amidst-%E2%80%98thriving-black-market-trade%E2%80%99/&gt;

[8] Hourani N, Nelson M 2016, ‘Some looted Idlib National Museum artifacts resurface, fate of others a mystery amidst ‘thriving black market trade’’ in Syria Direct, 18 October 2016, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://syriadirect.org/news/some-looted-idlib-national-museum-artifacts-resurface-fate-of-others-a-mystery-amidst-%E2%80%98thriving-black-market-trade%E2%80%99/&gt;

[9] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[10] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[11] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[12] Shirin 2019, Shirin, viewed 4 August <http://shirin-international.org/&gt;

[13] ARCA 2017, The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, viewed 4 August 2019 <http://www.artcrimeresearch.org/&gt;