Voices

Why protecting the world's cultural heritage concerns us all

By Stephen Stenning

01 August 2016 - 13:22

What is our 'cultural heritage' and why does it need protection? The British Council's Stephen Stenning responds.

There's a saying that culture and cultural heritage 'shapes' us. Can you explain?

To be British, Scottish, a Londoner, a Cornishman is not a matter of genes or blood. It has something to do with our surroundings and history. We construct our identities from stories, objects and buildings that conjure up our ancestors' past: their glories, tragedies, or simply their day-to-day lives. When people describe an awe-inspiring historic site, they often imagine the people who once walked through its doors, worshipped under its roof, stared open-mouthed at its statues or picnicked next to its walls. A multitude of people came before us and shaped the world we live in today.

Can you give an example of how the culture that surrounds us influences who we are?

Some years ago, I took about 15 London teenagers to an international festival in Turkey. They took part alongside other groups from about 40 countries. On arrival, someone observed that although each of the young Londoners seemed to have a different ethnic origin, with various hair colours and skin tones, they were recognisable as a group by the way they behaved. All of them were relatively self-conscious, reserved and socially unadventurous. My point is that this was a group of young people whose families had arrived in London via different routes and from different places. Yet they were all identifiable as Londoners, because they had been shaped by the same things.

How have people tried to protect their cultural heritage in the past?

People will go to extraordinary lengths to shield valuable heritage at times of war or conflict. As a child, I remember being taken to the historic Welsh mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in search of a steam railway, and marvelling at the slate grey slag heaps. Apparently, the slate mines housed top-secret, specially constructed storage buildings that hid thousands of valuable art works and artefacts during the Second World War. The intent was to ensure our cultural property would not fall into the hands of the Nazis, should the UK be invaded. As the National Gallery was later bombed during the Blitz on London in 1941, this turned out to be a very wise move.

A more recent example can be found during the January 2011 uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when revolutionary fervour and the withdrawal of the police offered an ideal opportunity for looters. From the first night of rioting, young activists formed a human chain around the National Museum that borders the square, helping security guards protect the treasures within.

What is the Hague Convention and what does it have to do with this?

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was drawn up in 1954 as a response to the destruction of heritage and cultural property during the Second World War. Since then, more than 120 countries signed up to part or all of the convention. But it's only now that the UK is adopting it into law. In fact, the UK was the last major nation to get on board.

Why did the UK take so long to sign up?

There were questions in the past about how robust the convention is, and it might be that those questions were a factor in delaying the UK’s ratification. The convention has been strengthened in recent years with the inclusion of criminal sanctions.

What's the extent of the damage to cultural heritage in countries where there are ongoing conflicts?

It's a challenge to co-ordinate and gather records to get a full picture of what has been damaged and destroyed, and to understand the priorities for protection.

Newspaper headlines have focused on attacks on world heritage sites, like the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. In 2015, the Temple of Baalshamin and the third-century Roman Arch of Triumph were blown up by so-called Islamic State fighters. Footage of militants smashing exhibits in Iraq's Mosul Museum with sledgehammers and axes has been much-shared and broadcast.

However, the damaging effect of conflict goes well beyond the most famous sites, and what can be seen in the extremists' propaganda images and videos. A leading academic recently showed me before-and-after photos of an archaeological site in Iraq. In the ‘after’ picture, the entire site was pock-marked with thousands of holes, carelessly drilled by looters looking for objects to sell. It was a vivid and alarming illustration of the conflict's dual impact: first, the removal of law and order, and second, people's accompanying sense of desperation, fuelled by poverty, hunger and fear. It is unclear how much of worth had been scavenged from the site. It's unlikely that anything the looters found would have yielded them more than a few dollars, but the site itself was irreparably damaged.

What's going to change, now that the convention is to be ratified by the UK?

It will mean a good many changes. For example, there are very direct implications for the Ministry of Defence. On 18 May 2016, the Secretary of State announced in the House of Commons that, as part of the ratification process, the UK's armed forces would establish a military cultural protection group. Military personnel, police, and border agencies will have to be trained on cultural protection issues and the illicit trade in antiquities, so they can recognise and understand what needs protecting and where the key sites are. And on a broad symbolic level, it signals that the UK wants to understand and respect different cultures, by helping them protect their heritage and property.

Do people in the UK broadly support this decision?

The United Nations' description of the destruction of Palmyra as a war crime was echoed by just about every major UK newspaper. With Palmyra, we are talking about a World Heritage Site. The point about these sites is that they are, according to the UN, ‘of outstanding cultural importance to the common heritage of humanity’. Their preservation and protection is important for mankind as a whole; they are part of our collective history. Stonehenge is not merely important to people who happen to be living in or around Salisbury Plain, where the prehistoric monument stands. Its protection isn’t a matter purely for the local Wiltshire County Council. Its destruction would never be seen as merely a local or even a national issue. It would be a crime against humanity that would leave all the world's inhabitants the poorer.

UK organisations can currently apply for grants available through the Cultural Protection Fund to carry out projects in a series of countries affected by conflict.

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