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Vienna talks: Pooling resources for heritage protection, from Palmyra to Cyrene

On Tuesday, 26 April 2016 at the “Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien”, Austria, a new session of the “ICOM Palmyra Talks” was held, drawing an audience of some 200 attendees.

Vienna talks: Pooling resources for heritage protection, from Palmyra to Cyrene

Initiated by ICOM Austria under Chair Dr Danielle Spera, Director of the Jewish Museum Vienna, the objective of the event was to enhance public awareness of current threats to heritage sites arising from war and destruction, notably in Libya, and present solutions for the protection of cultural heritage. On this occasion, ICOM presented its Emergency Red List of Libyan Cultural Objects at Risk in German translation, following the list’s initial launch in December 2015 in Arabic, English and French.

In his opening remarks, ICOM President Hans-Martin Hinz emphasised the organisation’s vital efforts for the protection of cultural property both within and outside of museums since its founding 70 years ago – “one of our most important common objectives” – before continuing: “For 15 years, ICOM has been publishing the Red Lists of endangered cultural assets in order to raise the awareness of law enforcement agencies, auction houses, museums, dealers and other parties […] The lists have become a model of success, helping identify a number of objects and return them to their countries of origin.”

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova then presented a keynote speech entitled “Culture under Attack – Saving our Global Cultural Heritage”, in which she highlighted the importance of culture for social cohesion in the face of the violent extremism that has engendered persecution, bloodshed and the deliberate destruction of the common heritage of humankind in recent years, notably in Iraq, Libya and Syria. She emphasised that “violence knows no borders: all States are concerned, and we must respond together […] Heritage reminds us that there is no pure culture – we are all connected as culture permeates, and influence [one another].”  She highlighted UNESCO’s #Unite4Heritage campaign, a global movement inviting everyone to stand up against extremism by celebrating the places, objects and cultural traditions that enrich every community around the world. 

Applauding Austrian efforts for the protection of cultural heritage, in particular as co-sponsor of UNESCO’s programme for emergency measures to protect Syrian heritage, assess damage and train professionals, and as host of the day’s talks, Bokova stated: “We can make Palmyra a symbol of unity of the international community to respond to attacks on heritage with even more culture, more knowledge and more dignity […] This is not about stones and monuments – this is about who we are as human beings – it is about the history of an entire people.” She recalled that from 9 to 11 May in Tunis, Tunisia, an international expert meeting will be held to coordinate efforts for the protection of Libyan heritage, hosted by UNESCO and ICCROM, with the support of the US Embassy in Libya and hand in hand with relevant Libyan institutions.  The UNESCO’s Director General added “Over the last 15 years, the ICOM Red Lists have considerably renewed the way we fight against illicit trafficking and UNESCO is determined to continue working with ICOM to end this plague”

France Desmarais, ICOM Director of Programmes and Partnerships, then presented the German version of the Libyan Red List, produced by ICOM with the support of the US Department of State, with scientific support from Vincent Michel, Director of the French Archaeological Mission in Libya, and a group of 12 other experts from Libya, the US and Europe. It identifies categories of objects particularly vulnerable to trafficking, including funerary sculptures and busts, objects from the Greek, Punic and Roman periods and the Islamic and Medieval eras. Desmarais compared the systematic looting of cultural property in Libya and other conflict-ridden countries to a “silent cultural annihilation,” starkly stating that such looting occurs “because there is a market for those precious objects.” She reiterated the need for nations and institutions to work in concert for the eradication of theft and illegal trade, highlighting the invaluable expertise in moveable cultural property offered by the ICOM network, which must be offered widely “to help identify, intercept, seize and eventually return looted objects.” Dr Hafed Walda, Academic Advisor for the President of the Department of Libyan Antiquities and one of the contributing experts for the Libyan Red List, was invited to provide an overview of the current threats to cultural heritage in his country.

In closing, Desmarais offered words of hope on the effectiveness of current and future cooperation for the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of humanity: “the attention and interest raised by the latest Red List launches […] clearly means that we are learning something from this unprecedented crisis […] with the eye on the objective: making the illegal sale of cultural objects very difficult, if not impossible.”