In addition to immeasurable human suffering, the Russian invasion also poses a threat to the cultural heritage of Ukraine: its churches, historical sites, museums, monuments and traditions. A week ago, UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for culture, estimated the number of sites already damaged at more than 50.
Beate Reifenscheid, president of Icom Germany, considers this figure long overdue. “From Mariupol, you don’t even know about serious damage,” Reifenscheid told DW. “You have to assume that everything is lost there.”
In March, Claudia Roth, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Information, launched the Ukraine Network for the Protection of Cultural Assets with the German Foreign Ministry. This is aimed at improving the protection of cultural treasures, gathering information and coordinating assistance actions, especially from Germany. Icom Germany has been named as the central transfer point.
Lots running in parallel
The International Council of Museums (Icom), founded in 1946 jointly with UNESCO, now includes 151 National Committees. “Thanks to this international network, we didn’t have to start from scratch,” says Beate Reifenscheid.
Since the anti-government protests in Belarus in 2020, voting within Europe has been largely entrenched. Also at that time, cultural institutions asked for help. “We did not realize for a long time that such a situation could arise in Ukraine,” says Reifenscheid.
It is now a matter of maintaining an overview in a confusing and ever-changing situation. Structures must be prepared, data must be sorted. “Because everyone wants to help as quickly as possible, there is still a lot going on in parallel, and we have to coordinate actions more closely.”
Despite all efforts, funds have so far been limited to helping institutions in Ukraine on site. There are currently no plans to move the art pieces out of the country. “Ukraine will be deprived of its cultural assets,” explains Pate Reifenscheid. Museums could not decide on such a measure on their own.
In addition, if the artworks were temporarily stored outside Ukraine, one question would remain unanswered, the answer to which is difficult to imagine: what would happen if Russia won the war and occupied Ukraine? Should art then be returned to the aggressor?
It is said that plaster protects wood from flames
Several institutions belong to the Network for the Protection of Cultural Assets, including the German National Library, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Federal Archives. There are also offers of help from various clubs and societies, such as the Association of German Art Historians.
Beate Reifenscheid, President of Icom Germany
Actions are coordinated in digital meetings with other Icom committees – including one from Ukraine. At first there was a special demand for packaging materials. “They were then taken to the Polish-Ukrainian border, reloaded there and transported to their destinations on absolutely new routes,” Pate Revenscheid reports.
Materials are currently required in which the chests can be built in order to be able to store and transport the goods carried in them. Fire extinguishers are on the list of needs, fire protection blankets, and flame retardant putties to paint wood with. Reifenscheid says that buying technical equipment is more complicated, for example for air conditioning for things that need to be protected from moisture or heat. “As a general rule, local museums cannot provide these devices because they are in use.” This technology should be bought, “it costs a lot of money.” The network’s financial endowment is not yet complete.
The relevant institutions support Ukraine with different expertise. The German Archaeological Institute helps evaluate satellite images in order to document and verify damaged cultural assets. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine has created a website where eyewitnesses and residents can report damages.
There are already 166 entries listed, not all entries have been verified. Pictures show bullet holes or bombs in the facades of museums or churches. “The windows, facades, ceiling and interior decoration of the old building of the Palace of Culture were bombarded by several shells and shells […] badly damaged”, as stated in the entry from Mariupol.
Documenting war crimes
Documentation is also important because the destruction of cultural assets is a war crime. In March, the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, wrote to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
In 1954, Russia was a signatory to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In the international treaty, the parties undertake to protect cultural assets from damage, destruction, theft, pillage and unlawful appropriation during war or armed conflict.
“The signature was not worth the ink,” says Beatt Reifenscheid, referring to Russia that questions Ukraine’s cultural identity. “They want to erase the soul and the DNA of Ukraine,” she says. This also includes the cultural heritage of the nation.