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Lynn Meskell is Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Department of City and Regional Planning, Richard D. Green Professor of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and curator in the Middle East and Asia sections at the Penn Museum. Her award-winning book, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (Oxford, 2018), reveals UNESCO’s early forays into a one-world archaeology and its later commitments to global heritage.
You just returned from a trip to Brussels, where you presented your latest research on heritage conflict at UNESCO World Heritage sites and post-conflict reconstruction to NATO. What was the forum and what was at issue?
I was invited by Frederick Rosen at the Nordic Center for Cultural Heritage & Armed Conflict in Copenhagen to be part of an invited panel for NATO-member delegations and military leaders. The Nordic Center has been working with NATO around cultural property issues for a decade, and it brought together scholars and experts from Canada, the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK.
There’s intense interest in cultural heritage protection right now—and that it must be thought of in terms of NATOS’s programs on human security and the protection of civilians. This is largely because of the war in Ukraine, but it can be traced back to the rise of Islamic State in 2014 and also NATO countries’ own challenges with heritage in conflict since the end of the Cold War. There is an enormous push for NATO to create its own policy on how to view cultural property, in terms of protection, not just prioritizing monuments and objects, but to recognize the broader significance of heritage for communities and their futures.
The idea of cultural protection has been around for a long time. There are the UNESCO conventions, like the 1954 Hague Convention, which specifically addresses heritage in wartime, plus the 1972 World Heritage Convention, which may privilege certain sites within that protection regime. But my impression is that NATO believes that heritage has become much more of a security issue than previously thought.
What message were you delivering?
First of all I was presenting the results of research I conducted with my Wharton colleague Vit Henisz with the support of Penn Global and a Global Engagement Fund grant. That work demonstrates how UNESCO World Heritage sites have become embroiled in all types of conflict worldwide rather than engendering peace and cooperation. I was also arguing that the older UNESCO instruments are no longer adequate to the task. They are World War II products, and they don’t reflect how cultural heritage is being used today, even by UNESCO Member States in nominating and inscribing properties. And they certainly don’t reflect how aggressive nations and armed groups are weaponizing heritage. I think 2015, and the recognition of Islamic State’s program of destruction, was the turning point for NATO to realize that sites are being mobilized to victimize people, and that destruction is used as propaganda. We see that strategy sadly playing out today in another context, Ukraine.
Yet there still remains a very romantic mid-century notion of “monuments men” [popularized by the 2014 Hollywood movie in which George Clooney stars] that some in the US military and at the Smithsonian have tried to revive. The idea that you are prioritizing and saving masterpieces, particularly European masterpieces, has been widely critiqued. In fact, in my other research in the Middle East, we found that it was neither museums nor archaeological sites that meant something in the life of the community, but their local sites, shrines, spiritual places and landscapes that held meaning for people. And I, for one, am more interested in the people than the things.
How does the reality of cultural heritage play out in conflicts?
World Heritage Sites, those designated by UNESCO, are often flashpoints. These sites are more likely to generate conflicts, particularly leading up to inscription on the World Heritage List. In our Penn Global project, we have millions of data points, in 80 languages, showing very clearly across 1,154 sites this ramping up of conflict before, and in that immediate period when they’re inscribed. Now you add armed conflict to that mix, and if people feel alienated and so on, these sites are targets. It’s a very complex political situation and very far from the idea of simply “protecting” cultural heritage.
How does this reflect on NATO?
NATO forces have protected World Heritage sites in Libya, in Mali, and they are still in Kosovo. With my colleagues from Wharton, Duke, and Copenhagen, we studied how these sites have been viewed in the post-conflict era. Protecting cultural heritage in Libya was supposed to be a success for NATO, but we found that sentiment towards the Alliance was negative. In Kosovo, also considered a success, sentiment is extremely negative. We need to know why, and how to better support people before, during, and after war.
Given the conflict they generate and how communities are so often excluded, World Heritage sites might not be where the real socioeconomic regeneration is going to happen. So NATO is moving from a limited idea of Cultural Property Protection, or CPP, to thinking about this in terms of human resilience and recovery, security, and protection of civilians. They are now thinking about a longer-term humanitarian project: How will communities survive these conflicts? How will they rebuild spiritually as well as in concrete terms? That’s also part of my research on two cities devastated by Islamic State Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria with the Arab Barometer. What sites are most important to people and how do we protect those? Who should be doing the rebuilding?
How might NATO engage with local communities differently?
When NATO engages, for instance, through their training missions in Iraq or Kosovo, they need to consider the highly contentious politics of cultural heritage. One of my recommendations is that NATO needs more local information and understanding. I used the example of the Arab Barometer project, which I’m involved with colleagues at Princeton and Ben Isakhan in Australia. Together we surveyed 1600 people in Mosul and 1600 people in Aleppo to ask them exactly these questions.
What are the most important sites for you? What would you like to see reconstructed? Who should do the work? In terms of their destruction, which of the sites concerned you the most? It is not archaeological museums. Many of these residents have never been to the museum. Rather, it’s local and community-based sites and shrines, the souks and marketplaces, the old cities of Mosul and Aleppo. These are places of social, economic and spiritual regeneration. They are also places where multiple religions can and do interact. So we have to think about the peace building and future development, and not pick the sites that we in the US, Europe or elsewhere are most interested in.
How do you see NATO taking on this new role?
I think what’s needed to tackle these challenges is a new Center of Excellence. NATO has many such centers dedicated to particular issues. I’d suggest the Scandinavian countries host such as center because they already have a great track record in cultural preservation. Sweden is coming up for a NATO membership. Denmark and Sweden have incredible archeologists, political scientists, and other academic professionals with expertise. They have demonstrated a commitment to ethical international work and to gender, peace and education.
What does this mean for the war in Ukraine?
UNESCO has published a list of the cultural sites that have been damaged, at present close to 250. What I saw at the World Heritage Meetings in January 2023 was how the Russian Federation has effectively weaponized the 1972 Convention. Russia remains on the 21-member World Heritage Committee, the most powerful decision-making group at UNESCO. Russian officials said that they had not damaged a single World Heritage site during the conflict, and they are going to argue that they have not broken any international laws. Instead, they claim to be protecting heritage, which of course they want to appropriate for themselves: This is cultural imperialism. And this is the moment to ask Ukrainians what is important to them and to support them in their efforts, as it should be for those people still living in the ruins of conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.