Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Countries Around the World

Posted by Evan M. Ryan
February 20, 2014
Special Coordinator for Iraqi Cultural Heritage John Russell Inspects Ancient Brickwork at the Site of Ancient Babylon in Southern Iraq

The events recounted in the new movie The Monuments Men are unfolding every day around the world. It’s a little less dramatic, but the work by the State Department to preserve, protect, and recover works of art is as vital today as it was in World War II.

Today’s villains are more likely to be transnational organized crime syndicates that traffic in antiquities that fetch big dollars on the black market. But threats also come from conflicts and natural disasters.

So the Department has a team of experts whose sole job is to care for and protect the cultural heritage of countries around the world. The art historians, archaeologists, and architectural historians of the Cultural Heritage Center, part of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, don’t carry guns, but these new soldiers of diplomacy work on the frontlines to restore a country’s archaeological wealth. They provide expert guidance in protecting and restoring sites and work with international law enforcement to prevent looted items from entering the United States.

For instance, soon after the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, Cultural Heritage Center personnel were on the scene delivering equipment, furniture and administrative supplies. Eleven of the museum’s public galleries, a three-story storage facility, and the conservation labs were renovated and a new roof and upgraded climate control systems were installed.  At the site of ancient Babylon, the Center started major conservation work on an important temple and the world-famous Ishtar Gate.  In Erbil, these professionals established a preservation education center, so future generations of Iraqi experts can care for these sites.

In other cases, monuments and archaeological sites damaged by conflict or natural disasters are preserved through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.  Grants from the Ambassadors Fund have supported efforts in countries throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Peru, Jordan, Mongolia, and Uganda. In Libya, efforts are underway to document and assess archaeological sites in the regions under conflict.  In Thailand, a major, multi-year project is underway to document and conserve Wat Chaiwathanaram (Wat Chai), a 17th-century Buddhist monument in the former Kingdom of Siam. A cornerstone of Thai cultural identity and popular tourist destination, Wat Chai was seriously damaged during Thailand’s disastrous monsoon floods in the fall of 2011.

A key part of the job is preventing looted archaeological treasures from coming into the United States.  In response to well-documented widespread looting of archaeological sites and historic buildings in Syria, the Center worked with the International Council of Museums to develop the “Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.” The Red List, which illustrates representative types of Syrian artifacts, is a tool to assist customs, police, dealers, and collectors in identifying potentially looted Syrian objects. Artifacts recovered in the United States are returned to their country of origin.  Just recently, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns returned a Khmer statue to Cambodia.

This week, the experts of the Cultural Heritage Center met with the actors and producers of The Monuments Men at a White House screening of the film. The actors noted how their modern day counterparts embody the spirit and the work exemplified by the soldiers of the film. They work together with other government agencies, museums, and organizations to preserve our shared world heritage.  As a vital tool of foreign policy, their efforts strengthen the foundation of our bilateral relationships, protect a country’s cultural identity, and support economic growth.

About the Author: Evan Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.

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