Gunfire damage to 6th century AD mosaic from Farkiya, Ma'arra Museum, Idlib, Syria. (Photo courtesy Ali Othman and the Ma’arra Museum)
Syria’s four-year civil war has led to the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage at an unprecedented rate. World Heritage sites, such as Krak des Chevaliers and the city of Aleppo, medieval Christian cemeteries and other archaeological sites and museums have been subjected to extensive raiding and looting.
To help protect these and other Syrian treasures, the Smithsonian and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum), in cooperation with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are working to offer assistance for museum curators, heritage experts and civilians working to protect cultural heritage inside Syria.
In late June, the organizations held a three-day training program, “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections,” which focused on safeguarding high-risk collections. The program offered information on how to secure museum collections safely during emergencies, provided participants with basic supplies for packing and securing museum collections and began a dialogue among Syrian participants about emergency responses. The training was funded by the Smithsonian and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.
The program was facilitated by Corine Wegener, the Smithsonian’s cultural heritage preservation officer, Robert Patterson, an exhibits specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and Brian Daniels, director of research and programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum.
“The toll of the civil war on the people of Syria has been devastating, and international attention has rightly been focused on getting the country’s citizens the aid they need,” said Wegener. “But the country’s rich cultural heritage is also in danger, and workshops like these allow us to assist the professionals and activists who are on the ground caring for damaged and at-risk collections.”
About 20 people from several Syrian provinces attended the training. Workshop leaders were joined by Syrian scholars Salam Al Kuntar, a lecturer from the University of Pennsylvania, Amr Al Azm, chair of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force and associate professor at Shawnee State University, and Ali Othman, a researcher at the University of Paris. Technical assistance for the program was provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace and The Day After Association, a Syrian-led civil society nongovernmental organization.
“While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage,” said Daniels. “This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.”
June’s emergency training program was a critical first step. The Smithsonian, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with the cooperation of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are preparing to launch an extensive new project, which will document current conditions and future preservation needs and track and report intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.
About the Smithsonian
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. There are 6,500 Smithsonian employees and 6,300 volunteers. There were 30 million visits to the Smithsonian in 2013. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 137 million, including more than 126 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History.
About the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum
Dedicated to supporting cultural heritage initiatives, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center brings considerable experience in training, capacity building and basic research about cultural heritage and cultural policy. It has led several projects in conjunction with the U.S. government, including a research partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Mission to UNESCO to increase the empirical information known about the World Heritage program as it exists in the United States and abroad. PennCHC’s capabilities are enhanced by the world-class archaeological and anthropological faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and the curators of the Penn Museum.
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