Museums & Heritage

Cultural heritage officials condemn Trump’s threats against Iranian sites

Meanwhile, an impromptu tribute to the country’s cultural heritage broke out on Twitter, as users posted images of their favourite places

The Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, also known as the Pink Mosque, with its rainbow hued stained glass, was among Twitter users' favourite Iranian cultural sites Photo: Diego Delso

Museum officials and cultural heritage experts spoke out on Monday condemning US President Trump’s bellicose threats to target sites “important to Iran & the Iranian culture” if it retaliates against American citizens or assets for the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani.

“The targeting of sites of global cultural heritage is abhorrent to the collective values of our society,” said Daniel Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Max Hollein, its director, in a joint statement. “Our world knows precisely what is gained from protecting cultural sites, and, tragically, what is lost when destruction and chaos prevail. At this challenging time, we must remind ourselves of the global importance of protecting cultural sites—the objects and places by which individuals, communities, and nations connect to their history and heritage. Today’s leaders and citizens have many profound responsibilities—protecting lives, and also protecting the precious legacy of generations before us, as it is from these shared places of cultural heritage that we gain the wisdom to secure safe and better futures.”

The Archaeological Institute of America, an advocate for the preservation of the world’s archaeological heritage, released a statement condemning “any intentional targeting of Iranian cultural heritage sites in unequivocal terms” and called upon President Trump and the Defense Department “to protect civilians and cultural heritage in Iran, and to reaffirm that US military forces will comply only with lawful military orders”.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which represents 225 museums in the Americas, also released a statement saying it “deplores the tactic of targeting or demolishing cultural sites as part of any war or armed conflict. In this case, the region is home to unique and irreplaceable artefacts and archaeological sites, and AAMD strongly urges international engagement to protect and preserve our shared cultural heritage.” Pointing to historic efforts to safeguard art and artefacts during armed conflict, like the Monuments Men programme during the Second World War, it added: “The United States government should be aware of the location of the region's many significant cultural and religious sites and monuments—and the museum community stands ready to assist with locating them and working to help US forces avoid targeting or destroying them.”

Patty Gerstenblith, the director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago pointed to the international directives Trump would be violating if he were to attack cultural sites in Iran, including the 1954 Hague Convention, and the Department of Defense’s own Law of War manual. “President Trump's threats to attack Iran's cultural sites as a form of premeditated retaliation would clearly violate these instruments and would be an illegal command,” Gerstenblith says. “On behalf of the US Committee of the Blue Shield, the primary organisation that works to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict and natural disaster, I and many others in the cultural heritage field sincerely hope that the situation will not come to this.”

The New York-based World Monuments Fund issued a statement saying it considers "any threat to cultural heritage sites—in Iran or any other country—to be absolutely unacceptable. From Syria to Afghanistan, Mali to Yemen, we have all witnessed far too many intentional acts of destruction of irreplaceable treasures over the last decades. In each case we have seen how the obliteration of such important places of meaning irrevocably harms not only a country’s people, but humanity in general."

Some cultural leaders took to social media to expressed their outrage. Thomas Campbell, the director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says museum directors would normally "remain behind the scenes" in such instances. "But when the president of the United States inverts every value system our country previously stood for, and calls for destructive attacks against cultural sites in one of the oldest civilisations in the world, you have to speak out vehemently and urgently."

He adds: "Qasem Soleimani was clearly a calculating and sadistic Iranian operative, responsible for the death of many US and allied troops and civilians. The rights and wrongs of state-sanctioned murder are complex. But for President Trump to backstop this action by threatening cultural sites in Iran is to reduce western values to those of the ISIS fanatics who destroyed cultural sites in Mosul, Nineveh and Palmyra in 2014 and 2015. Not to mention the iconoclastic atrocities of despots and tyrants in previous centuries."

Cultural heritage leaders in the UK and Europe have also condemned Trump's threats. Hermann Parzinger, the executive president of Europa Nostra and president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, says it is "unacceptable" that Trump should threaten the destruction of Iranian cultural heritage sites. "The deliberate targeting of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is prohibited by international law and is recognised as a war crime by the International Criminal Court." 

Parzinger urges world leaders, governments and international organisations "to take cultural heritage out of the equation of political and armed conflicts and to put it where it belongs, at the very heart of what brings us together in mutual respect and dialogue, and as a source of enrichment and inspiration for present and future generations".

Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, writes on Twitter: “Just as the bulldozing of Palmyra [and] significant heritage sites by ISIS was abhorrent, so US government threat to destroy important cultural sites in Iran must be condemned. This is a worrying step towards the normalisation of cultural destruction as a war aim.”

The public outcry against Trump's comments finally led Defense Secretary Mark Esper to acknowledge that the military would not target cultural sites if tensions with Iran escalated. “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said at a Pentagon briefing late on Monday.

Meanwhile, an impromptu tribute to the country’s cultural heritage broke out on Twitter, as users posted images of their favourite places using the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites. Among the many treasures highlighted are the beautifully tiled Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, the Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, also known as the Pink Mosque, with its rainbow hued stained glass, and the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, among the first sites to be added to Unesco’s World Heritage List, in 1979.