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New Guidelines Help Museums Safeguard Works Threatened by War and Disaster

A relief from the temple of Bel, Palmyra, which ISIS recently attacked (image via Wikipedia)
A relief from the temple of Bel, Palmyra, which ISIS recently attacked (image via Wikipedia)

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has released a list of protocols for museums to help protect artworks or archaeological objects that are currently at risk of destruction. “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis” applies to works threatened not only by violent conflict or acts of terrorism — a growing concern, as ISIS has made clear — but also by natural disasters. The ongoing Syrian Civil War, however, seems to have served as the impetus for this issuing, with AAMD President Johnnetta Cole condemning the intentional damage as “reprehensible acts of violence and brutal vandalism.”

The protocols are comprehensive, providing guidelines for museums to temporarily shelter a work of art or an artifact — from its approval as a valid object that needs protection to its transportation to a safe haven to its return to its owner. “Depositors” may range from a work’s legal owner to its custodian to US government authorities who have seized an object during custom checks and may request protection at one of AAMD’s member museums across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. While the protocols are not rigidly enforced, AAMD has strongly encouraged its 240 members to adopt them and has also invited museums outside its circle to do so as well.

Paper folio from Materia Medica of Dioscorides showing a physician preparing an elixir, possibly from Baghdad, that is listed on the International Council of Museum's Red List of Iraqi cultural objects at risk (click to enlarge) (image via Wikipedia)
Paper folio from Materia Medica of Dioscorides showing a physician preparing an elixir, possibly from Baghdad, that is listed on the International Council of Museum’s Red List of Iraqi cultural objects at risk (click to enlarge) (image via Wikipedia)

The association’s system is devoted to documenting the entire process while ensuring transparency about the threatened works. It requires condition reports at multiple stages and — after approval by the depositor — ensures that scholarly access to the works remains open. AAMD itself will add a new section to its online Object Registry, where museums will post information about these works that anyone may browse. AAMD is also committed to educating the public about the importance of safeguarding cultural property: the protocols state that the museum should provide relevant educational material if the objects go on display. AAMD basically asks that member museums treat these works as loans, ensuring that they receive stabilization and proper storage as well as display conditions.

It’s noteworthy that the protocols also regard looted works as candidates for protection and preservation, which AAMD notes is legal; keeping them within the walls of a museum would effectively remove them from the marketplace into the hands of those who can preserve, record information, and facilitate their eventual return. The FBI recently issued a statement warning about the increased entry of looted works in the US market, making this detail especially pertinent.

AAMD notes that it supports the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; the first international treaty of its kind, the Convention states that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind” — a statement echoed by AAMD, who describes such cultural objects as comprising “the artistic heritage of human kind.” AAMD’s standards and practices reflect the organization’s dedicated efforts to frame this cause as one that requires a collective and united response from the world’s network of museum professionals.

“The Safe Haven Protocols are grounded in the principle of stewardship that is the hallmark of the museum community, as well as in our belief in the urgent need to safeguard works that are in imminent danger of damage or destruction and cannot be sufficiently protected in areas of the world that are in crisis,” AAMD member and Freer/Sackler Galleries Director Julian Raby said in a statement. “We are committed to working with our international colleagues to address this crisis collaboratively and with the utmost urgency.”

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