What exactly is cultural heritage (and what isn’t)

One image I remember most vividly from the past decade was the looting and destruction of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad after the entrance of the US army in spring 2003.

See e.g. the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago for background, context, images and some qoutes from the incident (including Donald Rumsfeld’s stupid jokes):


But while the looting of archaeological artefacts was extensively discussed in international media and also the destruction of the national archive received some attention, hardly anything was ever said about another cultural tragedy: The looting of the Museum of Modern Art and the disappearance of its holdings. Some art works may have been rediscovered, but many have not. And with lacking or incomplete archival filing systems, the exact number of works stored in the museum and their identity is impossible to trace.

Now, more than 10 years later, cultural heritage is again being destroyed in Iraq and Syria.

One of the many articles dealing with this issue:


One of the sites that have suffered sever damage, Apamea (photo taken in 1999):


While the focus again is on the archaeological and historical heritage and its scandalous and tragic destruction, another cultural and artistic heritage is also under threat, although maybe less immediately and urgently than the archaeological sites and monuments. But who can predict the direction events in Syria will take in the nearer future? And ignoring the issue will not make it go away.

Syria has an impressive artistic heritage, spanning several millennia. Among this is also an impressive modern artistic heritage. The National Museums in Damascus and Aleppo and the Ministry of Culture hold collections of modern painting, from the days of the “pioneers” to more recent work. And the National Film Organization has in its storage important films by Syrian film makers, many of whom have won prizes at international festivals. Unfortunately these film copies were already in a bad state of preservation before the beginning of the uprising due to poor conservation conditions. And while digital copies of these films might exist in the hands of the film makers and various institutions around the world, the original 35 mm copies are in Damascus.

In times of war and conflict, art and cultural artefacts are increasingly at risk, unscrupulous collectors are waiting to get their hands on looted pieces and often even commission criminal organizations to loot, armed groups are financing their fight with the sale of looted art, etc. At the same time, people on the ground are doing whatever they can to project artefacts, often under great risk to their own lives.


But to come back to the events of 2003 mentioned above: How come the looting of the Museum of Modern Art passed unnoticed by international media? And what is being done to assure that the same does not happen in Syria?

The UNESCO does not have a strategy to protect the modern artistic heritage of the country. At a meeting in Geneva on March 31, I asked Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova what efforts were being taken to protect the modern artistic heritage and she seems utterly surprised at my question and had to admit that they were not concerned about modern art.

But why is this so? Why should a country’s modern artistic heritage be less worth protecting than archaeological remains, traditional storytelling traditions or traditional dances? Do we only perceive “heritage” in terms of traditions that go back to the very distant past? Can more recent, more hybrid and less “comfortable” (because not locked in historical distance) artistic forms not be part of what is termed “cultural heritage”? Why shouldn?t the modern heritage of the Non-West be protected just as archeological sites?

Maybe it would be worth taking up this discussion….


About zakharifblog

Art historian and curator, living and working between Berlin and Geneva. Formerly based in Damascus.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art history, Cultural heritage, Damascus, Film, Modern art, Museums, Painting, Syria and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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