Malian Cultural Heritage Security Workshop Gets to the Heart of the Matter

Posted by Evan Ryan
August 5, 2015
Residents of Timbuktu pass by Djingareyber Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, December 5, 2013 [United Nations Photo/Marco Dormino]

The coup d’etat in 2012 and subsequent instability has left Mali’s cultural heritage sites vulnerable to pillage and outright destruction. The worst examples come from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Timbuktu where Islamic extremists used picks and shovels to tear down centuries-old shrines and took matches to some of the city’s famous manuscripts. Destruction of heritage, whether through looting at archaeological sites or demolishing of historic buildings, attempts to erase history and prepare a foundation for extremist narratives. The loss of cultural heritage also destabilizes national unity and economic livelihood through tourism -- two aspects that are extremely important to Malians who pride themselves on their rich cultural history and who have always welcomed visitors.

At the request of Mali’s Ministry of Culture, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' Cultural Heritage Center and U.S. Embassy Bamako sponsored and organized a cultural heritage security workshop to reduce theft and loss of cultural artifacts. A diverse group of nearly 35 heritage managers and stakeholders from throughout Mali -- including representatives from the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Tourism, Malian Customs and National Police, the nonprofit Coordination of Organizations and Women’s Associations of Mali, and the United Nations peacekeeping mission -- took part in the five-day workshop hosted by the National Museum of Mali in Bamako.

Heritage managers and stakeholders from throughout Mali pose for a group photo during a cultural heritage workshop in May 2015 [Photo courtesy of Modibo Bagayoko, DNPC]

Through lectures, demonstrations, and field exercises, participants learned the principles and practice of cultural heritage physical site security such as proper use of glazing materials (doors, windows, display cases) and locks; task analysis and training for guards and caretakers. Most importantly, participants received the resources necessary to implement security plans at heritage sites they steward.

Subsequently, seven select participants received advanced training and intensive practical experience analyzing and applying the skills learned during the workshop. For this newly formed response team, their “classroom” could not have been more historically important: the temporary storerooms in Bamako holding the famed manuscripts evacuated from Timbuktu in January 2013. By the end of the workshops, the recommended physical security improvements to the storerooms -- like upgraded locks, doors, and fire prevention measures -- had been completed, helping to ensure the safety of these priceless artifacts from theft. This response team is now a sustainable resource for the Ministry of Culture, with the knowledge and intensive practical experience necessary to develop physical security plans for cultural heritage sites and respond to security emergencies.

A Malian police inspector testing padlock integrity at a Malian cultural heritage workshop in May 2015 [Photo courtesy of Modibo Bagayoko, DNPC]

By providing the necessary training and resources, this program supports U.S. goals of preserving cultural heritage and countering violent extremism. Since 1997 the U.S. and Mali have also been bilateral partners in protecting and preserving Mali’s cultural heritage through an international treaty. The agreement commits the United States to use its best efforts to facilitate technical assistance to Mali in cultural resource management and security.

Finally, workshops like these, supported by the Department in jurisdictions all over the world, get to the heart of the matter. There is no single solution for protecting and preserving cultural heritage. It relies on a complex system of tools and teamwork, from basic site security and monitoring, to enforcement of national and international legislation and public education. The United States and Mali are doing their part to attack the problem of cultural heritage pillage and destruction. At a time when cultural heritage is in peril like never before, these actions are more important than ever.

About the Author: Evan Ryan is the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

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