Smithsonian | Why We Have a Civic Responsibility to Protect Cultural Treasures During Wartime

With the recent deliberate destruction of cultural treasures in the Middle East, we remember the measures taken in the past to preserve our heritage.

The Smithsonian working with Yo-Yo Ma, the Aga Khan and Rajeev Sethi demonstrated how conflicts, forced migration and exploitation along the historic Silk Road were surmounted, and resulted in complex and creative cultural expressions in art, music, cuisine, fashion and ideas that connected people around the globe.

Why we have civic responsibility to protect Cultural Treasures during wartime

By Richard Kurin for Published April 10, 2015 1:57PM

While museums are sometimes criticized for holding onto items acquired from other nations, their goal has been to preserve, exhibit and learn from them. It’s a noble, worthwhile and civic idea—that we of today might gain insight from understanding the past, and even be inspired by our heritage and that of others. Civic leaders generally support cultural heritage preservation and education as worthy social goals, though sometimes convincing politicians and officials that such efforts merit support from public coffers is not always easy. But actions undertaken in different parts of the world to destroy such heritage brings the basic mission of museums into strong relief.

Cultural heritage teaches us things. It embodies knowledge of particular times about architecture, engineering, design, social structure, economy, craftsmanship and religious beliefs. It offers an appreciation of history, and lets us understand something about the way in which people lived. But heritage is not only about the past. Heritage is either forgotten and obscured, or articulated and valued in the present. It symbolizes how people think of themselves and others, including their predecessors and neighbors today. In that sense, cultural heritage teaches us about tolerance and respect for a diverse humanity. Saving heritage saves us from the foibles of arrogance, intolerance, prejudice toward and persecution of our fellow human beings. It reminds us of our better nature and like the standing bodhisattva, helps us all live in a more humane world.

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The discussion continues in a program “Cultural Heritage: Conflict and Reconciliation” organized at the Smithsonian with the University of Chicago at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium on April 17. A session featuring Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, Emily Rafferty, the President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mounir Bouchenaki, Director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, and Richard Kurin, interviewed by David Rubenstein, Smithsonian Regent and University of Chicago Trustee, and co-founder of The Carlyle Group. The event will be available via webcast.
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