Gl˛ria Munilla at the Egyptian Museum in Barcelona (photo: Laura Solanilla Demestre)
One of the potential effects of the war in Ukraine is the destruction of the country's cultural heritage. Gl˛ria Munilla, a professor and researcher in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the director of the Joint Master's Degree in the Ancient Mediterranean at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), talked about what a military conflict can mean for the preservation of a country's material cultural wealth.
How could the war affect the loss of Ukraine's cultural heritage?
One of the major areas of knowledge in heritage studies is the one related to conflicts, due to the continuous acts of war in any territory that destroy a people's identity. The relationship between heritage and identity is crucial when considering these issues.
One issue is the destruction of heritage as a result of a war, and another very important question is the systematic and planned destruction of a culture's heritage, which is something that's been happening since ancient times.
Heritage is a basic tool for attacking the foundations of a cultural group's culture and identity. Its systematic, conscious and deliberate destruction is part of the strategies of war. This is why Ukraine is suffering and will suffer from the same experience as any other country in times of war.
What are the consequences of this destruction of its heritage?
From the Russian perspective, the destruction will contribute to annihilating the Ukrainians as a people. If we think back to the Balkan War in Bosnia, the most shocking symbol of brutality was the photograph of the library in Sarajevo which had been completely destroyed. That image contributed to the people becoming engaged and aware of what the conflict meant, and what the aims behind it were.
A similar situation arose with the public burning of books in Germany by the Nazi regime's student federation in the Opernplatz in Berlin and in 21 other university towns in 1933, which marked the starting point for the systematic persecution of Jewish, Marxist and pacifist writers and other authors who were opposed to the regime, or who it simply did not approve of.
Is cultural heritage usually restored after a war?
Even today, three quarters of a century after the end of the Second World War, the consequences of Nazi Germany's looting of European art treasures are still playing out. That's despite the enormous amount of work that has been done, including the creation and dissemination of documentary archives in France, aimed at identifying the legitimate owners of works that are now part of French national collections and returning them whenever possible.
What historical effects can the destruction of cultural wealth have?
The most immediate effect is the real loss of monuments and other items of heritage that are evidence of a people's cultural identity, with all the problems that this implies and what their reconstruction or the impossibility of their restoration entails. For this reason, institutions systematically seek the most appropriate solutions for restoring this heritage after the conflict. There's also a very important economic loss, given the high value of heritage as economic and cultural resources belonging to society.
Is an attack on a country's cultural heritage an attack on its identity?
That's precisely what it is, and it doesn't happen by chance. For example, in the Middle East, as a consequence of the collapse of the political regimes there, after the wars in Iraq and Syria and in the wake of the failure of the Arab Spring in 2011, the ideological backdrop behind the destruction that has taken place isn't only a defence of monotheism. It's a modern version of the damnatio memoriae of Roman times - the condemnation of memory and erasure from history, which was an attempt to exclude a specific social and cultural structure from existing in a territory as a system - to deny it the right to exist with the iconic features of its past. Destroying the past means denying the present, and above all, the future. Desecrating the remains of the past is also a socio-political tool for reaffirming possession of a territory by destroying the tangible elements of its history. It's a way of destroying people's roots.
The relationship between heritage and identity is essential to understand it, since the concept of heritage is therefore presented in its fullest terms, meaning the identification of a people and a culture with its historical and cultural heritage.
But iconoclasm also includes different problems. In other cases, the destruction of symbols of the past can symbolize a revision of history itself, based on the understanding that social changes happening in the present must also be applied to the construction of the narrative discourse of the past. This applies to the Confederate statues in the United States, for example.
Is the physical destruction of cultural heritage also a type of propaganda?
Indeed, and using the same historical context as an example, it's not just a question of an ideological reaffirmation, but also conveys a message to the Western world that considers historical-archaeological monuments in terms of essential elements of humanity's shared cultural and ideological past.
For example, the destruction carried out by the Islamic State since 2004 isn't an exception, as there was also the looting of Egyptian museums during the political uprisings which took place between 2011 and 2013, and the Taliban's demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, among other incidents.
And any conflict that takes place in Europe, as is the case with the invasion of Ukraine, has the same characteristics and motivations.
Is there a relationship between the black market and the destruction of cultural heritage?
The looting of Iraq's museums during the 2003 invasion led to archaeological materials being trafficked in the semi-clandestine antiquities market, and some of them were permanently lost in the illegal networks involved in the black market for works of art. This looting was followed by the attempt to force an amendment to Iraqi legislation to permit legal exports of the country's historical-archaeological heritage. The colonial practices that led to the exportation of the archaeological heritage of Mesopotamia, the Middle East and Egypt between the end of the 18th century and the 20th century to the major museums in the West were given a new lease of life using the justification of preserving a common cultural heritage.
What is your opinion of European countries and the United States having historical pieces of cultural heritage that have been looted from elsewhere?
The problem is widespread, and also affects Spain. Those thefts took place in situations prior to any legislation existing, and in many cases prior to the 20th century, and occurred in historical contexts with no legal basis for the preservation of that heritage. This is a common argument, as is the argument that the countries where the pieces currently are were better able to preserve that heritage. Any such argument today isn't valid, and as such each case should be addressed in isolation.
What are the outstanding challenges for protecting cultural heritage during wars?
It's important to increase the capacity for an immediate and flexible response by the institutions involved to safeguard this heritage. The initiatives by the UN and UNESCO have proven to be ineffective due to the broad definition of what historical-archaeological heritage means in many countries, where the leaders consider their destruction to be a minor problem compared to the political, social and economic tensions that affect them.
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