Cultural heritage: Threatened, not only by war | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.10.2018
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Cultural heritage: Threatened, not only by war

As experts meet in Berlin for the conference "Cultural Heritage in Crisis," the president of the German Archaeological Institute, Friederike Fless, tells DW how heritage sites are both protected and threatened.

DW: Cultural heritage is facing different threats such as war or climate change, but what falls under the definition of "cultural heritage"?

Friederike Fless: Cultural heritage is a complicated concept because it implies that there will be someone to transmit and to inherit a culture. This idea appeared during the French Revolution.

Today we have a very broad understanding of the concept. We have defined internationally important sites as World Heritage; we are also listing intangible cultural heritage, or traditions, for example music. This is all what we today call cultural heritage.

Frederike Fless, Archäologin (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut)

Friederike Fless is the president of the German Archaeological Institute

You have established the "Archaeological Heritage Network," which focuses on archaeological cultural heritage. What is the role of this network?

We founded this network in 2016 to bring together the skills of Germany's experts. We deal with issues of the protection and preservation of monuments, but also of artifacts in museums or archives.

Inventories or registers of memorials are very important in the context of cultural preservation. They are non-existent or still in analog form in many countries. For example, through the fire that devastated Rio de Janeiro's National Museum, the inventories were also lost, which means we cannot even reconstruct what the museum had.

What is most important in preserving cultural heritage: prevention, conservation or crisis management and reconstruction?

Every form of prevention is obviously important: a museum's objects need to be secured and evacuation plans need to be developed for them in case of a war for example.

But it's just as important to ask: What can be done as an immediate reaction to a crisis? The phase following a catastrophe is particularly important as well. The questions that then arise are for example: What can be preserved, restored or even rebuilt?

You mentioned the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Along with the fire, the water to extinguish it was an additional problem. Which measures are needed in such a case?

When such a catastrophe happens — as we have also experienced with the fire of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar or the Cologne city archive collapse — , it is necessary to act very quickly. Organic substances that became wet through extinguishing will be affected by mold if they are not immediately frozen or stored in a cool space. If that does not destroy the objects, then animals, termites or silverfish will start eating them. That means you need to act immediately.

You are very active in regions like Syria and Iraq, where you have initiated projects with archaeologists from those countries. What is it more concretely about?

With the project "Zero Hour: A Future for the Time After the Crisis," we want to support colleagues from countries currently affected by crises: Iraq, Syria and Yemen. We support them in their own efforts to maintain, protect and perhaps even restore their cultural heritage.

That means we are investing in training. In Iraq, we can directly assist the reconstruction and conservation measures, but in Syria and Yemen, this is currently impossible for different reasons.

What is the status of the preservation of cultural heritage in those countries? One could imagine that in war zones such as Syria, the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and the completely destroyed infrastructure is the priority?

Archaeologists in all these countries have never stopped taking care of their monuments. They have also tried to protect them during direct warfare. They have, for example, buried objects or, aswas done during World War II, they protected mosaics with sandbags or walled up important gates. They have really tried to do everything they could. Even in the worst situations. And that is true for all countries; It's the case in Yemen, Syria and Iraq as well.  

We often focus on war and crisis regions. How strong is the destruction of cultural heritage through climate change and megacities?

The destruction through war, catastrophe or intentional destruction, such as the one offered to us in "high definition" by the "Islamic State" terrorist group, makes for strong images. In contrast, the things happening in expanding cities are creeping developments.

In some cities the destruction comes through overbuilding; the removal of historical structures is almost more extensive there than in war zones. That happens in countries that aren't in our focus, in Libya, for example, where bulldozers just push everything away or in Beirut, where a company recently replaced the old city with high-rise buildings. It happens so quickly that nothing that was there survives.

Is there international awareness of the value of cultural heritage? The destroyers  of mosques and mausoleums in Timbuktu, Mali, were prosecuted at the International Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague. Do you see this as a positive development?

There are two developments.

For one, cultural preservation and the destruction of cultural goods are increasingly a topic of the international politics of the countries of the United Nations.

But on the other hand, we are also experiencing that agreements that had been reached over what is cultural heritage are terminated by terrorist groups in Mali, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq and that no one is respecting them. any longer We are a bit at loss as to the political actions and the new mode of negotiation we should develop to counter this.

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