Syria Training Group June 2014: Left to right, emergency workshop leaders at the June 2014 training: Bassem Hatahit (Deputy Minister of Culture and Family Affairs, Syrian Interim Government); Amr Al-Azm (Shawnee State University and Syrian Heritage Task Force); Salam al-Kuntar (Penn Museum); Corine Wegener (Chief Preservation Officer, Smithsonian Institution); Taghrid al-Hajali (Minister of Culture and Family Affairs, Syrian Interim Government); Brian I. Daniels (Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Penn Museum); Robert Patterson (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution). Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution and Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Penn Museum
PENNSYLVANIA—Since the Syrian civil war started four years ago, many Syrians have been killed and infrastructure destroyed. In addition, Syria’s cultural heritage has come under unprecedented attack, leading to the destruction of precious cultural artifacts. World Heritage sites like the historic city of Aleppo and Krak des Chevaliers, as well as medieval Christian cemeteries and numerous archaeological sites and museums, have also been subjected to extensive raiding and looting.
In a swift effort to help preserve Syria’s treasures, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in cooperation with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, have instituted a program to help stem the loss of the region’s significant cultural heritage. The program provides assistance for museum curators, heritage experts, and civilians working to protect cultural heritage inside Syria.
The first training in the effort to protect Syria’s artifact was completed in late June. Held in an undisclosed location outside of Syria, the three-day training program labeled “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections,” focused on safeguarding high risk collections in museums and other cultural institutions in Syria as the war civil rages on.
During the training, organizers did not lose sight of the dangers faced by those who risk their lives to protect Syria’s cultural artifacts. Addressing the need for the training, Brian Daniels, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programs, Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum noted that “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.” These Syrians, Dr. Daniels notes, deserve all the support they can get. “This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts,” he said.
Funded by the Smithsonian and the J. M. Kaplan Fund (New York), the first training brought together about 20 people from several Syrian provinces. It was facilitated by Dr. Daniels; Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer, Smithsonian Institution; and Robert Patterson, exhibits specialist, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Workshop leaders were joined by Syrian scholars Salam al-Kuntar, lecturer, University of Pennsylvania; Amr Al-Azm, chair of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force and associate professor, Shawnee State University; and Ali Othman, researcher, Université of Paris I. Technical assistance for the program was provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace (Washington, D.C.) and The Day After Association (Brussels, Belgium), a Syrian-led civil society NGO.
The training addressed three main objectives: how to secure museum collections safely during emergencies; provide participants with basic supplies for packing and securing museum collections, and to begin a dialogue among Syrian participants about emergency responses.
Elucidating the objectives of the training, Richard M. Leventhal, Penn Cultural Heritage Center Executive Director notes that “This workshop fits the model of heritage preservation promoted by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.” He adds that “Local communities are best equipped to identify heritage in need of preservation and protection, and this is precisely what is happening in Syria. We are pleased to work alongside communities in Syria and other places around the world to support these efforts.”
Another major point of discussion during the training was the conditions at the Ma’arra Museum in Idlib province, famous for its collections of Byzantine mosaics. The museum which has come under direct attack from ISIS units, has also received collateral damage in the conflict that does not seem to have an end. To protect the treasures in this museum and many others across Syria, some suggestions were offered for stabilization in the current situation. Participating Syrians were also provided with emergency conservation supplies.
Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution, stressed the importance of bringing people together in a collaborative environment to address situations like those in Syria. “Workshops like these allow us to work directly with the cultural heritage professionals and activists who are on the ground caring for damaged and at-risk collections. We provide them practical information about protecting collections and sites, along with critically needed supplies and equipment. In return, we learn a great deal from our Syrian colleagues.”
Successful as the June’s emergency training program was, the organizers see it as a critical first step and notes that more has to be done in the effort to help Syrians protect their cultural artifacts. Presently, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with the cooperation of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are set to launch an extensive new project to document current conditions and future preservation needs, tracking and reporting intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.