The Genteel
February 24, 2021


Three "Monuments Men" admire their find. Source:

'Cultural heritage' is one of those phrases with such a broad reach that its real significance is often lost to us. However, these two simple words cover the tangible property created by a community and passed on from generation to generation. Ranging from monuments, paintings and sculptures to coins, ruins and historical sites, cultural heritage influences tourism, conservation sites, education and archaeological discovery. The meaning of these items is in fact significant, especially when it comes to their preservation. As UNESCO have widely publicised, through their dedication of several departments and research programs to the topic, it is paramount that these precious artefacts are saved from the dust; they are invaluable in understanding and documenting a culture's history.

Iraqi National Museum Deputy Director Mushin Hasan weeps amongst the ruins in October 2003

Iraqi National Museum Deputy Director Mushin
Hasan weeps amongst the ruins in October 2003.
Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty.

The issue of 'looting', however, makes this issue of preservation increasingly difficult. In times of armed conflict, from ancient history to the modern day, the maintenance and protection of cultural heritage becomes almost impossible. There is evidence of plundering in battle as far back as Ancient Rome’s attack on the Etrurian city of Veii in 396 A.D., which saw the infamous looting of the ancient goddess Juno statue. More recently, however, World War II, the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the present conflicts in Syria are just several examples in which countries have seen detrimental repercussions on key cultural sites.

Some of the most memorable instances of extensive looting occurred during the Second World War. The Nazis notably plundered galleries and museums, as well as personal collections of expensive art and cases of treasured vintage wine. In France during WWII winemakers, which made up 20 per cent of the population at the time, needed to protect this cultural heritage; the rare collections of vintage wine represented their world-renowned and profitable industry. To avoid losing their precious collections, workers decanted the desired wine into cheaper bottles (and cheaper wine into well-known vintage bottles), so that when the Nazis invaded, their seemingly prestigious and valuable loot was in fact worth very little. The high value wines were carefully hidden behind false walls, purposely covered with spider webs to avoid detection.

While there are plenty of culturally important artefacts to preserve, the effort really relies on the public's willingness to acknowledge their importance and support their preservation.

In the final years of WWII, there was a major restitution of stolen goods by the newly-created MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives), a military-run section of allied forces created in 1943. The group was composed of around 350 men and women, many of whom were museum directors, curators and art historians conglomerated from thirteen nations.

The Monuments Men, as they were widely known, represented a major movement of art aficionados coming together and advocating for the preservation, as well as the restitution, of cultural items. Their main aim was to rescue the art looted by the Nazis and return it to the rightful owners. In the year following the war they managed to salvage more than five million culturally significant items. The section remained in place until 1946 to safeguard monuments, key artefacts and save these cultural commodities from destruction.

Despite their efforts, cultural looting has reappeared in times of recent conflict. During the second Gulf War and the taking of control of Baghdad by the United States Military in April 2003, the Iraqi National Museum, the world's largest archive of ancient Mesopotamian art, was severely looted. According to The Independent's report in 2005, several gangs and professional art thieves took at least 13,000 precious artefacts. The times of devastating unrest in Syria have also seen multiple cases of looting, including the significant loss of a bronze and gold 8th century B.C. Aramaic statue stolen from the Hama museum. All six of Syria's cultural heritage sites have been damaged in the conflict.

Taking or destroying a nation's properties during open hostilities creates blanks when tracing back a nation's historical timeline, and as such, recovery is crucial. With this in mind, the topic of preservation and recovery was of key importance for the Fifth Annual Conference of The Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation in New York City on Friday, 1 November 2013.

This year's conference, entitled 'The Monuments Men, Social Media, the Law and Cultural Heritage', was held at Fordham Law School's Lincoln Center Campus. For those in attendance, the conference felt like a secret society meeting, playing host to an eclectic mix of pioneering speakers, including academics, journalists, screenwriters, archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic specialists and curators. As cultural heritage implications have spread over a diverse network of industries, the multi-faceted panel was essential to get a clear and global understanding of the preservation, cultural and legal issues being raised.

The key discussions covered the law governing art and cultural heritage during conflicts between nations, as well as strategies being developed to prevent looting and how updated technology and media could be used to raise awareness of looting and cultural heritage.

Byzantine mosaic in the destroyed Ma'arat al-Nu'aman museum, Syria

Byzantine mosaic in the destroyed
Ma'arat al-Nu'aman museum, Syria.

The latter seems to be particularly relevant in today's modern age. While there are multitudes of culturally important artefacts to preserve across the globe, the overall effort really relies on the public's willingness to acknowledge their importance and support their preservation. Cultural heritage needs to find a way of fitting into the agenda of today's tech-savvy and social-media obsessed general public. Online cultural heritage resources seem to be the answer.

The two pioneering projects that are expected to reshape access to curators, archaeologists and academics' research on antiquities and cultural heritage are the soon-to-be-launched 'Nostoi' and 'Wikiloot' databases. Currently in their initial stages, these projects are being developed and backed by reputable universities and media outlets.

The digital platforms are not only attempting to preserve cultural heritage by providing access to resources for rare and invaluable artefacts, but they will also improve public and professional knowledge. Nostoi, supported by the EU, will document historical origins and archeological sites across the Mediterranean region. Wikiloot intends to raise public awareness where looting is concerned, using crowdsourcing and previously unpublished photos to help track down stolen or lost artefacts that could be for sale in markets today.

Cultural heritage might seem like a phrase we don't really relate to in our everyday lives, but without its preservation, our history and cultural identity will be lost. With any luck, these online projects will help to highlight the significance of cultural heritage in today's modern world. After all, these are the artefacts that helped to shape it. 

Related: A Fragile Heritage.

Related: The Value of Art Theft. 



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