What is Fair, What is Right, What is Important: Considering Art in a War Zone

The conflict in Syria erupted almost exactly two years ago, on March 15, 2011.

There are many ways to speak of what is happening right now in Syria: what Bashar al-Assad has referred to as a small contingent of problem-causing outsiders and terrorists meddling in an otherwise stable Syria, others refer to as the overdue uprising of an oppressed people, and others still see as bored and unemployed youth venting frustration at a broken economy.

There are many problems to focus on in Syria: the massacres, the refugees, the people and organizations that may be lurking in wait to replace Assad, the possibility (however remote one might think it is) that Assad will not fall.

These are problems enough, and within these problems people are dying. Blood is being spilled. Children are being cut down in the streets and in their homes. Is it fair, then, to even breathe a word about another problem, another grave loss occurring in Syria right now: the loss of its art, its architecture, its cultural heritage.

Bulb Shaped Bottle. Syrian. 200-300AD.

Bulb Shaped Bottle. Syrian. 200-300AD.

Is it fair to talk about this? Is it right? Is it important? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I am not alone in this concern: Syrian artist Tammam Azzam asked the same thing recently with his photoshopped work of Klimt on a bombed-out building.

It seems crude, after seeing images of what happened, say, at al-Houla, to be concerned about the crumbling historic granite or cracked tiles in Aleppo’s Old City. It seems like, if any action should be taken, it should be to shelter the refugees, to protect the injured and dying.  It seems impossible to take the long view of cultural loss when faced with such pressing life-or-death need.

But I work in an art museum. My daily conversations are filled with concerns about grumbling granite and cracking tiles. I share the concerns of anyone working at an art museum, and many outside of museums, to protect objects, to preserve cultural inheritance.

In an earlier entry on this blog, I mentioned the importance of a museum acting as a protector of objects. In addition to its many, many other roles and obligations, this is a crucial part of working at a museum, and it effects everything we do, from keeping bugs away by disposing of food in the proper place, to keeping vigilant for any changes in humidity.

The UMFA, along with many other museums around the world, holds objects from Syria in its possession. Most of these objects are, therefore, shielded from bombs, mortars, fire, and the drastic change and reshuffling that comes with war. Writing this, it seems unfair to go without adding: these objects are therefore shielded in a way that the Syrian people are not.

Pitcher. Syrian. 200-400AD.

Pitcher. Syrian. 200-400AD.

So, rather than sitting at my desk and spinning my wheels, I asked others who work at the UMFA what they thought about this issue.

Ann Penman Morgan, our head of security, said “Cultural objects are often the last thing thought of when war breaks out in a country.  It is important that we do our best to preserve these cultural heritage items.  People will flock to their objects as they look for a piece of their history as something to inspire them in times of trouble and in times of recovery. During war time, these items are often left unguarded and are subject to bombing, arson, fire, theft, looting, vandalism and destruction.  I have heard of various embassies helping war torn countries to evacuate works of art, the same as they would to evacuate dignitaries when war breaks out. Plans to perform such missions are often coordinated between several branches of the government. The museum outside of the war zone who might receive and hold these items need to take the highest care, knowing they are preserving the heritage of a people who are suffering.  Their intent should be to preserve, catalog, and hold the works of art in hopes that someday they can be return these items to the war torn country in a future time of peace.  In doing so the museum will become a hero for that country.”

And Whitney Tassie, our Curator of Contemporary Art, provided me with a list of recommended reading. The articles can be found here, here, and here.

Much has been written about the fate of art and architecture in war-torn regions (such during as WWI and WWII). Tell us: what does this issue raise for you?

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