Iran threatens to keep artefact

September 17, 2010
LONDON: It was not an easy decision for the British Museum to lend one of its most treasured artefacts to a country with which Britain has a notoriously prickly relationship.

So curators in London are paying close attention to an Iranian threat not to return the famous Cyrus Cylinder – now embroiled in political intrigue in the Islamic republic.

The 6th century BC Babylonian object, sometimes described as the world’s first human rights charter, arrived in Iran at the weekend and is due to be displayed for four months at the national museum.

In a ceremony on Sunday the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, draped a Palestinian-style keffiyeh scarf over the shoulders of a bowing actor dressed as the ancient Persian king Cyrus.

He also described Cyrus reverentially as ”king of the world” – a striking phrase in a country where pride in Iran’s pre-Islamic past, encouraged by the shah, has been downplayed since the 1979 revolution.

For Mr Ahmadinejad’s domestic enemies, this was another glaring example both of his self-promotion and a religious-nationalist agenda.

”Isn’t it correct that the Cyrus Cylinder belongs to Iran?” asked the conservative Keyhan newspaper. ”Isn’t it true that the British government stole this valuable and ancient object of ours? If the answer to these questions is positive, which it is, why should we return [it] … to the party which stole it?”

The correct answer, insists the British Museum, is the cylinder was not stolen but excavated in Babylon, Iraq, in 1879.

In recent times, relations strained to breaking point with the expulsion of British Council staff from Iran, the launch of the BBC Persian TV channel, and the violent aftermath of last summer’s disputed presidential election.

The cylinder is due back in London in January.

”There is no sense that this is anything other than a loan,” the museum said.

”This is part of our ongoing relationship with the national museum of Iran which both institutions value as a cultural dialogue independent of political difficulties.”

Critics point to the irony of the President’s celebration of the cylinder as ”a charter against injustice and oppression” as he oversees unprecedented human rights abuses.

Guardian News & Media

September 17th, 2010

Posted In: cultural heritage at risk, cultural security

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August 30th, 2010

Posted In: cultural security

Protecting cultural heritage as development priority

By Diana Gregor

1 August, 2010 [MediaGlobal]:The earthquake that shook Haiti in January 2010 has proven how vulnerable cultural heritage is to natural disasters. In the wake of the earthquake’s widespread destruction were museums, galleries, and other places that contained Haiti’s cultural property. Haiti’s Centre d’Art has been severely damaged; the Musée d’art Nader has collapsed; murals in the Trinity Cathedral have come crashing down.

Elke Selter, UNESCO Programme Specialist for Culture in Port au Prince, told MediaGlobal, “The majority of cultural institutions were affected by the earthquake. Now, six months later, we are slowly able to track the number of damaged cultural properties. Artifacts are being stored in temporary boxes and containers, which is obviously bad.”

When asked about the difficulty of prioritizing cultural preservation given the direct need for food, water, and shelter, Selter said, “Cultural heritage is a necessity, it is your past. You cannot just leave a country to lose its history. One needs the past in order to move on to one’s future and therefore you cannot cut off people’s roots. Haiti has a history with very important moments.”

Culture is a common source of wealth. Reducing poverty is not only achieved by increasing productivity and income but also by allowing people to have access to what constitutes their cultural identity and cultural heritage. Over the last fifty years, the protection of the world’s cultural heritage from natural and man-made disasters has therefore been a major focal point throughout the world.

Yet, the extent of irreplaceable destruction of cultural sites, monuments, collections, and archives represents an imminent danger to cultural heritage and cultural diversity. The destruction of cultural property due to natural disaster and armed conflicts can be witnessed around the world as it includes cultural losses in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bosnia among many other places.

The desire to protect cultural heritage has led to the establishment of international organizations for cultural heritage such as the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Currently involved in disaster recovery, educational workshops, and preservation of cultural heritage, the World Monuments Fund is a private organization founded in 1965 and dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage sites in more than 90 countries around the globe. Lisa Ackerman, the Fund’s Executive Vice President and COO, told MediaGlobal, “The World Monuments Fund works on 40-50 projects at any given time and they span the globe. Every project is different and often each site has unique circumstances.

In Cambodia, the World Monuments Fund has worked on site at Angkor for 20 years and in the course of this work has trained Khmer professionals in architectural conservation practices, analytical tools, and conservation technology. The training is an integral part of the work undertaken. Preservation education and advocacy must be seen as tied to improving the living conditions of the residents in those communities.”

One of the side effects of the war in Afghanistan is the loss caused to the country’s cultural heritage. In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, which until then represented the world’s largest standing Buddha statues. The Taliban declared that the Bamiyan Buddhas were idols that were against Islamic law and obliterated them.

In Afghanistan, there is an additional problem to the war: smugglers. In spring of 2010, around 7,000 artifacts that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan were returned to the Kabul museum.

The war in Iraq has lead to the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites; during the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, libraries were set on fire and ivories trampled underfoot. Iraq continues to struggle with the preservation of its museums and serious archeological work remains a challenge.

Martina Griesser-Stermscheg, member of the ICCROM-UNESCO partnership for the preventive conservation of endangered museum collections in developing countries, told MediaGlobal, “Cultural heritage constitutes identity; identity is being created through cultural symbols.”

Risk preparedness for the protection of cultural heritage is a key issue for developing countries. Besides the value of cultural heritage as a source of cultural identity, cultural property can provide opportunities for tourism and development – two vital generators for substantial revenues and employment.

August 4th, 2010

Posted In: cultural security

Conservator help salvage Haiti’s cultural material

Associated Press
07/26/10 3:50 AM EDT

ANNAPOLIS, MD. — It is slow, deliberate, frustrating, yet fulfilling work trying to preserve a people’s culture.

Vicki Lee, senior conservator at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, already has made two trips with teams of experts trying to mend Haiti’s cultural heritage following the devastating January earthquake, and is itching to return.

“It’s so sad. There is so much work to do. We need thousands more people to do it,” she said in an interview at her office off Rowe Boulevard after returning from the stricken island nation about two weeks ago.

On the other hand, the Chesapeake Beach resident and her colleagues — who have made trips to Haiti under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Institute for Conservation’s Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) — see cause for hope.

“I think the chances for recovery are quite good, but it will take a lot of time,” said Hugh Shockey, an object conservator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum who worked on the same team as Lee.

“To be quite honest, what gives me the most amount of hope is that the Haitians were recovering materials from the rubble rather than just throwing them out. They saved what they could,” Shockey said. “If I am going to put the pieces back together, I have to have the pieces.”

He said it is evident the Haitian people clearly value their cultural material.

“It could have all been scooped up by a bulldozer and sent on a truck to be dumped,” Shockey said.


In ruins

On the team’s initial visit, they found public and private museums in ruins, Lee said. Stacks and stacks of paintings had been removed from their frames and stretchers.

In the rubble they noticed pieces of paintings, sculptures, documents, books.

The Musee d’Art Nader, a private museum in Port-au-Prince that housed some 12,000 paintings and other art, was flattened. In it was the largest collection of Haitian masters such as Hector Hyppolite.

Fortunately, the basement was intact. Hundreds of paintings that were stored there were saved, and hundreds more were pulled from the rubble above.

Lee got to work with another colleague to preserve a Hyppolite. It is outside her area of expertise in document and book preservation, but that is where AIC-CERT shined.

The organization cross-trained its 60 rapid-response team members so all would know what to do with a variety of cultural artifacts. It’s like a triage team: They come into an area and can perform immediate tasks to stabilize cultural treasures.

“We do what we can and leave the artifact in a condition where, later on, more conservation work can be done,” Lee said.

The team is now organized in such a way that when one group of conservators leaves, another takes its place. They have set up a restoration center in Port-au-Prince.

There, paintings, documents and other treasures will be repaired and stored until a larger, centrally located storage facility is put together.


Being resourceful

Lee first went in May, then returned last month. On her second trip, the headquarters was up and running and the teams were able to work on materials brought to them.

One item fell right into Lee’s expertise: preserving a document.

It was a military record of Gen. Alexandre Petion, son of a wealthy French aristocrat and a black Haitian mother. He was trained in France and fought with the French to put down rebellions in Haiti. But then, in 1803, he turned to fight for independence, eventually becoming the second president of a free Haiti.

The document suffered water and other damage. Lee painstakingly stabilized the document over a couple of days, but it wasn’t easy. The team brought some supplies with them, but had to secure other materials to do the job.

“We went all over the place. We could not find acetone and finally wiped out a store’s supply of nail polish remover,” Lee said.

Another task was to secure a photo tray large enough to bathe the document and other artifacts in.

“I found a large planter that came with a basin. They would not sell me the basin only,” she said. “So I made my own — Styrofoam from a shipping box lined with plastic sheeting and held together with bamboo skewers. … It worked.”

It will likely take more MacGyver-like ingenuity to complete the preservation work in the years ahead, but a major component of the AIC-CERT mission is to train Haitians to do the job.

Currently, staff members from two Haitian museums are being trained.

“The theory is, if we train people already invested in an institution, the won’t just take the training and leave the country,” said Lee, who has worked at the Maryland Archives since 2000.

She said she intends to take her skills back to Haiti to preserve and teach just as soon as she can.

“I have already asked to go back,” she said.

Read more at the Washington Examiner:

July 27th, 2010

Posted In: cultural security

Sinking oil threatens historic Gulf shipwrecks

By Cain Burdeau
Associated Press Writer / July 4, 2010

TIMBALIER ISLANDS, La.—Not just flora and fauna are getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico’s barnacled history of pirates, sea battles and World War II shipwrecks.

The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds, World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker’s dream is threatened by BP PLC’s deepwater well blowout.

Within 20 miles of the well, there are several significant shipwrecks — ironically, discovered by oil companies’ underwater robots working the depths — and oil is most likely beginning to cascade on them.

“People think of them as being lost, but with the deepsea diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily accessible,” said Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.

“If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for scuba divers to go down there and explore,” Anthony said. “The spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on (underwater) operations.”

The wrecks include two 19th-century wooden ships known as the “Mica Wreck” and the “Mardi Gras Wreck.” The German submarine U-166 and ships sunk by other German submarines during World War II are within the spill’s footprint.

The Mica was a 200-year-old, two-masted schooner that sank sometime before 1850, according to a report by the Minerals Management Service. It was discovered about 2,500 feet deep in the Mississippi Canyon during work to lay a pipeline.

In 2002, the Mardi Gras wreck was discovered by oilfield workers in even deeper waters: About 4,000 feet down about 35 miles off the Louisiana coast. The wreck got its name from the pipeline project where the wreck was found: the Mardi Gras Gas Transmission System, a huge deepwater pipeline system.

Researchers with Texas A&M University believe the sunken ship may have been a gun runner or British trader during the War of 1812.

BP played a part in finding the U-166, a German U-boat sunk in World War II off the Louisiana coast. Then, as now, the Mississippi River was an important corridor for merchant shipping.

Crews surveying a pipeline project for BP and Shell in the Mississippi Canyon region came across U-166 in 2001. On July 30, 1942, the German submarine torpedoed the passenger-freighter Robert E. Lee, and then itself was sunk by depth charges from the Navy escort PC-566.

This week, oil washed ashore in the Florida Panhandle, where the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier lies off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. The Navy sank it in May 2006 to make an artificial reef. Sen. John McCain once flew bombing runs off the ship’s deck.

The tedious task of examining the wrecks for damage is beginning, though it’s uncertain whether BP will be held responsible for ruining underwater sites.
Dave McMahan, Alaska’s state archaeologist and an Exxon Valdez oil spill veteran, said federal environmental surveys and the courts would likely decide the matter.

“I would say for the folks working on cultural resources — or any resource — document everything,” McMahan advised.

Archaeologists are fanning out to assess the spill’s effect. The Gulf shoreline is chock full of history and to a trained eye, the bounty springs out.

“This is like Christmas Day for me,” said Courtney Cloy, an archaeologist mapping the Timbalier Islands, a barrier island chain on Louisiana’s central coast. “I am finding ceramics all over the surface out here.”

The origin of the ceramics was unclear. Perhaps they washed in from a shipwreck just offshore. Or they might have come from a hotel or home that once stood on the badly eroded barrier islands.

For now, the Timbalier islands are safe: Oil contamination has been modest and cleanup crews are being kept at bay.

But archaeologists have grave concerns for other locations.

Oil has begun washing up on Pensacola’s beaches, where in 1886, Geronimo, the Apache warrior, was imprisoned in Fort Pickens, the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay.

On the Mississippi coast, Ship Island was the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River for 300 years; thousands of Europeans first set foot in North America there, earning the nickname Plymouth Rock of the Gulf Coast.

During the Civil War, Ship Island was Union Adm. David Farragut’s base of operations, where he successfully launched an attack on New Orleans in April 1862.

On Grand Terre Island, just west of the Mississippi River, archaeologists have found remnants of a colony set up by Jean Lafitte, the pirate who helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans.

Archaeologist hope to avoid the mistakes made during the Exxon Valdez cleanup.

“We learned from Exxon Valdez that there were incidents of looting by cleanup workers, equipment being brought in, destroying the ground,” said John Rawls, marine archaeologist with Earth Search Inc., a firm hired by BP to do archaeological surveys.

In one incident, cleanup workers stumbled across a prehistoric Chugachmiut burial cave containing wooden artifacts.

“Cleanup workers found the cave, which was unknown to archaeologists, and removed some of the bones and then called a supervisor,” McMahan said. He said Exxon security collected more of the bones and state troopers raked remains into a body bag and carted them away. “The site was pretty much trashed,” he said.

McMahan said cleanup workers need to be trained to be aware of their surroundings and to tread lightly on the landscape.

Archaeologists worry the push to clean the BP spill as fast as possible is causing damage. Bulldozers and dredges are being used to build barrier islands and erect sand dams, and thousands of workers are raking tar balls and crude off beaches.

“Avoidance is No. 1,” Cloy said. “We want to keep our footprint on these sites as minimal as possible.”


On The Web:

Minerals Management Service’s Web site for Gulf shipwrecks:

Alaska Office of History & Archaeology Web site on Exxon Valdez:

July 7th, 2010

Posted In: cultural security

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May 27th, 2010

Posted In: cultural security