As cultural and artistic heritage in Syria continues to face significant losses, two United States institutions have partnered with the Syrian Interim Government’s “Heritage Task Force” to share strategies for mitigating the dangers faced by museums and other sites.
In late June, the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center held a three-day training program called “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections.” According to a University of Pennsylvania release, the workshop was “held in an undisclosed location outside of Syria” and attended by 20 individuals from across Syria; future programs are intended, depending on funding.
But the impact of such efforts is constrained by geopolitical reality — the Syrian Interim Government is itself an opposition government organized by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces under the weakened authority of the Free Syrian Army, a force in the ongoing civil war responsible for much of the destruction. And although the ascendant militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has deliberately targeted heritage sites of sectarian import in Syria and Iraq, and museum collections fall prey to profiteering looters, much is also lost in the crossfire.
The museum outreach effort joins parallel initiatives in Syria and elsewhere in the region — in June, UNESCO issued a caution on Iraqi national heritage sites, and in October 2013, the United Nations and the US Department of State circulated a “Red List” guide to looted Syrian heritage items to customs officials worldwide.