Museums allow objects to speak, to bear witness to past experiences and future possibilities, writes René Wadlow, which is why they are deserving of greater protection, particularly during times of conflict.
Yesterday, 18 May 2015, was been designated by UNESCO as International Museum Day (ICOM) to highlight the role that museums play in preserving beauty, culture, and history. Museums come in all sizes and are often related to institutions of learning and libraries. Increasingly, churches and centres of worship have taken on the character of museums as people visit them for their artistic value, even if they do not share the faith of those who built them.
Museums are important agents of intellectual growth and of cultural understanding. They are part of the common heritage of humanity and thus require special protection in times of armed conflict. Many were horrified at the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad, when some of the oldest objects of civilization were stolen or destroyed. Fortunately, many items were later found and restored, but the American forces had provided inadequate protection at a time when wide-spread looting occurred. More recently, we have seen the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the museum of Mosul by ISIS factions. Today, there is deep concern for Palmyra as ISIS and government troops battle near the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Conserving a cultural heritage is always difficult. Weak institutional capabilities, lack of appropriate resources and isolation of many culturally essential sites are compounded by a lack of awareness of the value of cultural heritage conservation. On the other hand, the dynamism of local initiatives and community solidarity systems are impressive assets. These forces should be enlisted, enlarged, and empowered to preserve and protect a heritage. Involving people in cultural heritage conservation both increases the efficiency of cultural heritage conservation and raises awareness of the importance of the past for people facing rapid changes in their environment and values.
Knowledge and understanding of a cultural past can help current inhabitants to develop and sustain identity, and appreciate the value of their own culture and heritage. This knowledge and understanding enriches their lives and enables them to manage contemporary problems more successfully. It is important to retain the best of traditional self-reliance and skills of rural life and economics as people adapt to change.
Traditional systems of knowledge are rarely written down; they are implicit, continued by practice and example, rarely codified or even articulated by the spoken word. They continue to exist as long as they are useful, as long as they are not supplanted by new techniques. They are far too easily lost. Thus it is the objects that come into being through these systems of knowledge that ultimately become critically important.
Thus, museums must become key institutions at the local level. They should function as a place of learning. The objects that bear witness to systems of knowledge must be accessible to those who would visit and learn from them. Culture must be seen in its entirety: how women and men live in the world, how they use it, preserve and enjoy it for a better life. Museums allow objects to speak, to bear witness to past experiences and future possibilities and thus to reflect on how things are and how things might otherwise be.
Early efforts for the protection of educational and cultural institutions were undertaken by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) a Russian and world citizen. Nicholas Roerich had lived through the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and saw how armed conflicts can destroy works of art and cultural and educational institutions. For Roerich, such institutions were irreplaceable and their destruction was a permanent loss for all humanity. Thus, he worked for the protection of works of art and institutions of culture in times of armed conflict. Thus he envisaged a universally-accepted symbol that could be placed on educational institutions in the way that a red cross had become a widely-recognized symbol to protect medical institutions and medical workers. Roerich proposed a “Banner of Peace” − three red circles representing the past, present and future − that could be placed upon institutions and sites of culture and education to protect them in times of conflict.
Roerich mobilised artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A. Wallace, then US Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace − the Roerich Peace Pact − signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in additions the unique contributions of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”
As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways, and everyone realises in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of libraries of Lou vain and Overdo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheims. We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeps any worlds of hatred. Let us simply say : Destroyed by human ignorance − rebuilt by human hope.”
After the Second World War, UNESCO has continued the effort, and there have been additional conventions on the protection of cultural and educational bodies in times of armed conflicts. The most important is the 1954 Hague Connection for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
Museums help to build new bridges between nations, ethnic groups and communities through values such as beauty and harmony, that may serve a common references. Museums also build bridges between generations, between the past, the present and the future.