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International Museum Day - Dusting Off the 1954 Hague Convention
by Rene Wadlow
2009-05-18 09:59:40
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18 May has been designated by UNESCO as the International Day of Museums to highlight the role that museums play in preserving beauty, culture and history.  Museums come in all sizes and are often related to institutions of learning and libraries.  Increasingly, churches and centers of worship have taken on the character of museums as people visit them for their artistic value even if they do not share the faith of those who built them.

Museums are important agents of intellectual growth and of cultural understanding.  They are part of the common heritage of humanity and thus require special protection in times of armed conflict.  Many were horrified at the looting of the national museum of Baghdad when some of the oldest objects of civilization were stolen or destroyed. Fortunately many items were later found and restored, but the American forces had provided inadequate protection at a time when wide-spread looting was predicted and, in fact, going on.

The need for protection of educational and cultural institutions has been highlighted by the December 2009- February 2009 conflict in Gaza.  The Islamic University of Gaza was deliberately hit by six separate air strikes.  The extent of the damage was great, but there were no human casualties as the University had been evacuated.  The Islamic University of Gaza was established in 1978 and has some 20,000 students, 60 per cent of whom are women.  One of the buildings destroyed was the Ladies Building where women students attend classes.  The other building was the science faculty.  Science and the education of women are key elements in progress for the Middle East. Thus the significance of the destruction of the Ladies Building and the Science Faculty must not be overlooked.

The American International School of Gaza has also been destroyed.  The school offered a curriculum in English from Primary to the end of Secondary school.  Some 250 students were enrolled in co-ed classes while most schools in Gaza are single sex institutions. The International School was empty when bombed, although the night watchman was killed.  Again, the symbol of modern, co-ed education must be underlined. At the time of the conflict, on 3 January 2009, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, had appealed “We must do our utmost to protect the education system from such violence.  I urge all parties concerned to remain vigilant about making schools and universities safe, and to protecting the lives of school children, students and educational personnel.  We must also ensure the protection of the rich diversity of this cultural heritage at risk.  In situations of conflict, all opportunities, no matter how small, should be seized to enhance the prospects for peace, dialogue and development.”

A number of mosques have been destroyed.  Places of worship are often considered by some as holy, as representative of the religion or as a symbol of the Divine.  Therefore, religious institutions should be protected, even if they have no outstanding artistic significance.

Early efforts for the protection of educational and cultural institutions were undertaken by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) a Russian and world citizen.  Nicholas Roerich had lived through the First World War and the Russian Revolution and saw how armed conflict can destroy works of art and cultural and educational institutions.  For Roerich, such institutions were irreplaceable and their destruction was a permanent loss for all humanity.  Thus, he worked for the protection of works of art and institutions of culture in times of armed conflict.  He envisaged a universally-accepted symbol that could be placed on educational institutions in the way that a red cross had become a widely-recognized symbol to protect medical institutions and medical workers. Roerich proposed a “Banner of Peace” – three red circles representing the past, present and future- that could be placed upon institutions and sites of culture and education to protect them in times of conflict.

Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace.  Henry A. Wallace, the US Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace — the Roerich Peace Pact — signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony.  At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an ideal been more needed.  It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity.  It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs.  Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in addition the unique contributions of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”

After the Second World War, UNESCO has continued the effort, and there have been additional conventions on the protection of cultural and educational bodies in times of conflict.  The most important is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  The Hague Convention is open to ratification and accession by States in conformity with Articles 31 and 32.  However, the Palestinian Authority is not a State in terms of international law.  Yet the spirit of the Hague Convention is clear and the protection of cultural and educational institutions should be a priority in conflict among States or in civil wars.

Therefore we all have a duty to articulate more clearly the crucial link among human rights standards, humanitarian law, and world law to protect educational and cultural institutions in times of conflict.  As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways, and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era.  We deplore the loss of libraries of Louvain and Oviedo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheins.  We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities.  But we do not want to inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred. Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance – rebuilt by human hope.”

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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Emanuel Paparella2009-05-18 14:53:55
There is no doubt that museums are vital for the preservation of culture and their commemoration is quite appropriate. That preservation, it ought to be well remembered, began in the dark ages in Christian monasteries with the transcription of Greek and Latin manuscripts which then allowed the rebirth of Greco-Roman culture or the so called Renaissance which was never a slavish imitation but a synthesis with Christianity. Without that act of cultural preservation and the civilizing influence of the Church (see Kenneth Clark and Christoper Dawson), the barbarians would have devastated and destroyed the whole of Greco-Roman civilization and there would have been precious little to resurrect in 14th century Italy.

Moroever, museums are wonderful creations indeed, but by and large they represent past eras and civilizations; they are an aid to our collective memory. However, we ought to also remember that what remains lethal for a civilization, such as present day EU or US, or Western Civilization, so called, is to forget its intellectual and spiritual values and ideals and put all its trust and faith in banks and material prosperity. The best visual metaphor of that sad state of affairs, at least to my mind, is the city of Venice.
The city is slowly becoming a museum. Some 1000 people abandon it every year to go and live in the ugly industrial centers of Mestre and Marghera and so be able to purchase cars and TVs. At that rate the city will be an archeological museum, not unlike Pompei, in some 100 years. Already the phenomenon is visible: there are more tourists in Venice than Venetians. Indeed, to forget or abandon one’s values and ideals is the equivalent of decadence and the eventual death of a whole civilization.

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