Culture Under Fire: Protecting Ukrainian Heritage

The war in Ukraine has seen the destruction of industrial sites, residential neighborhoods, farmland, hospitals and schools. And although the loss of human life has been devastating there is also the increasing vulnerability of the cultural heritage sector, that is museums, art galleries and historic sites that have many times been targeted by Russian rocket fire.

An urgent initiative sponsored by the Canadian Coalition to Safeguard Heritage in Ukraine brought together over 100 participants in a zoom meeting yesterday representing museum professionals from Canada, the UK, U.S., Italy, France, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Finland, Germany and South Africa to discuss what can be done in the immediate short term to assist Ukrainian institutions and raise awareness of the danger that war poses to the preservation of artifacts and cultural heritage in Ukraine. Over 250 incidents of targeted damage to historic sites have been recorded since the war began.

The idea to form the coalition and to mount a panel discussion as the first sounding board for actions to be taken on behalf of museum workers in the besieged country was the initiative of Christophe Rivet, president of the Canadian national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) based in Ottawa. ICOMOS Canada has been a leading contributor in the area of cultural heritage conservation since the organization’s founding in 1975. 

He was quickly joined in this endeavor by Elka Weinstein, president of the Canadian branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).  ICOM and ICOMOS are sister organizations who often work together on issues pertaining to preservation and cultural heritage. Additional endorsers included the Canadian committee for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization); Canadian Museum of Human Rights; Conservators Association of Canada; Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals; Canadian Museums Association; Ukrainian Museum of Canada (Saskatchewan and Ontario) and the International Blue Shield Committee.

Introductory remarks were made by Natasha Cayer, Canadian Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Isha Khan, CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg along with Christopher Rivet. All of the opening speakers stressed a common need to organize and pool funding and resources while providing consistent messaging to the Canadian public on the need to protect heritage sites. Marcy Markusa, host of CBC Winnipeg’s Information Radio moderated the panel discussion.

Speaking from Brussels, Teresa Patricio, ICOMOS international president and professor of architecture at University of Lisbon, told the panelists, “we know from protocols that came out of Nuremberg in 1945, that aerial bombing, shootings and other armed conflict effects caused a huge amount of damage and destruction to museum treasures in a large number of countries” especially in Europe and Japan. “Since then, of course, there has been Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan – the list goes on. These are attacks on cultural identity and our shared sense of humanity in daily life.” 

These protocols were eventually codified as the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict and agreed upon at the Hague Convention of 1954. The Convention aims to “protect cultural property such as monuments, architecture, art or history, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest, as well as scientific collections of any kind regardless of their origin or ownership”

Kateryna Chuyeva, Ukraine’s Deputy Director General of Culture, brought the war in Ukraine and the situation on the ground vividly to life by her presence on the panel. Speaking from an undisclosed location in Kyiv, she calmly engaged with panelists and discussants as the war literally raged outside her door.

Choosing her words in English with careful consideration, Chuyeva explained how unprepared the entire population was for the Russian onslaught. “When the initial occupation of Ukraine territory occurred in 2014, it was unforeseeable then we would be faced with such a ferocious attack in the coming years. When the war started, everything changed.”

“Of course the first priority was human life over material culture. There were those who were serving in the armed forces or who were in training to serve on the front lines who had needs; then literally millions of civilians, especially women and children, who had to be moved into safer areas and evacuated.

“In the field of heritage work a number of museum specialists continued with their responsibilities and adapted to rapidly deteriorating conditions – including drastic cuts in salary – in order to protect collections in Ukraine’s 4,000 museums. So, at this moment our priorities are, we struggle to protect ourselves, to protect others and to protect our cultural heritage. That is what we are doing now.” 

Chuyeva also observed there are other areas such as active archaeological excavations that presently cannot be accounted for because it would be too dangerous to visit the regions where they are located. Along with the tragic loss of some institutions such as the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum which housed the works of Maria Ovksentiyivna and burned to the ground after rocket attacks, and damage to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial site, there has been widespread incidents of looting reported where precious art objects have either been taken back to Russia or sold on the international market.

Museum curators and conservators are especially worried that because of the amount of un-digitalized catalogues and other existing print materials in archives and libraries, some very vulnerable materials are in danger of being lost completely. Even under normal circumstances, one of the most serious threats to any museum or art gallery is fire. Fire caused damage to museum pieces and collections is an increasing byproduct of armed conflict throughout many parts of the world. 

One of the coalitions first priorities is to focus on efforts to supply museum specialists in Ukraine with 6,000 fire extinguishers that meet international museum standards along with fire suppression blankets to aid in the protection of cultural heritage sites.

At one point in the discussion, Kateryna Chuyeva was called away to take a call on her cell phone. She rejoined the panel with apologies for her absence and explained that a colleague had just phoned to tell her about reports of rocket bombardment in the area. A visibly moved Marcy Markusa asked if she felt safe, and that if she needed to seek shelter, the meeting could be adjourned. “No, please stay,” said Chuyeva, “usually, if it is dangerous, I will hear explosions and I haven’t heard any yet. Please let’s continue. This is what we do now.”

A statue of the poet and artist, Taras Shevchenko, protected by sandbags in Odessa.

UPDATE: CURATOR, the Museum Journal has devoted an entire online “special issue” for readers who would like a more comprehensive overview of what is being talked about and strategized with regard to organizing assistance and support for the museum and cultural heritage community in Ukraine.

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