Syrian Arab Republic
US museums provide emergency support for Syria
Syrian curators, heritage experts and civilians are being trained to secure high-risk collections
By Julia Halperin. Web only
Published online: 18 July 2014
US museums are teaming up with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force to help protect Syrian museum collections and stem the loss of cultural heritage amid the country’s ongoing civil war.
Late last month, experts from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Pennsylvania Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center quietly organised a three-day training session for curators, heritage experts and civilians in an undisclosed location outside of Syria. Around 20 people from several Syrian provinces attended the event, which focused on securing high-risk collections.
“Local communities are best equipped to identify heritage in need of preservation and protection, and this is precisely what is happening in Syria,” says Richard Leventhal, the executive director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, in a statement.
Experts are still working to determine the extent of looting that has taken place in Syria over the past several years and continues to ravage the country’s ancient sites. As reported in the July/August issue of The Art Newspaper, recently published satellite images of Dura-Europos reveal the dramatic scale of looting at the Hellenistic site, near the Iraqi border, between June 2012 and April 2014. The images show hundreds of holes made by looters searching for artifacts.
Organised gangs, antiquities traders and militants from the Islamic State (IS), an Al-Qaeda splinter group, are behind the looting, according to Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of Syria’s antiquities and museums department.
Among the most threatened cultural heritage objects today are the Ma’arra Museum’s famous collection of Byzantine mosaics. The museum, located in Idlib province, has come under direct attack. Last month’s workshop provided participants with emergency packing and conservation supplies designed to mitigate the damage to its collections.
“While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage,” said Brian Daniels, the director of research and programmes at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.
The event’s organisers described the emergency training programme as “a critical first step” in what they hope will be an “extensive new project” to collaborate with locals, document current conditions and address future preservation needs in Syria.
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