Evidencing threats to heritage in conflict zones

Posted on: September 11, 2017 by

“Scientists shoot rocks!” This was the opening line of a fascinating discussion exploring innovative methods of evidencing the destruction of cultural heritage in conflict zones held at the V&A last Friday evening (8 September). The event was part of the V&A’s ‘Culture in Crisis’ programme which seeks to raise awareness of the need to protect cultural heritage around the globe, encouraging a cross-disciplinary and holistic approach to the protection of heritage in all its forms.

The speaker responsible for the attention-grabbing opener was Dr Lisa Mol, lecturer in physical geography at the University of the West of England. Dr Mol gave a fascinating account of her research investigating the impact of bullets and shrapnel on heritage sites and objects. Sophisticated imaging techniques are helping to identify just how fundamentally porous stone is damaged by the impact of even small bullets, shot from rifles probably significantly less powerful than many of those used in real-life conflict. It was perhaps not wholly surprising to learn that gunfire damage penetrates far deeper than surface abrasions can reveal. The research offers the opportunity, however, to pinpoint more closely the precise kind of damage which a particular model of weapon will render on a specific material  – a development which will facilitate a more informed, evidenced-based and robust response to support the victims of violence left – literally – to pick up the pieces of their heritage and their communities.

These victims of cultural heritage destruction were very much at the centre of the stories told by the next speaker, Sarah Nankivell, Programme Manager at Forensic Architecture (FA). Sarah explained the work of FA (a research agency, based at Goldsmiths, University of London) in producing architectural recreations of those spaces where cultural destruction happens. These ranged from bomb clouds of an explosion in Gaza to a notorious Syrian prison where detainees are subjected to torture and brutality. By evidencing these events and places, FA seeks to support victims and their communities to develop a sense of agency and to provide an important step forward in the complex path towards establishing accountability.

One key message which emerged from both talks was the importance of adopting a multi-faceted and diverse narrative when approaching this topic. “Allowing the victims to tell their own story” is certainly crucial, but it runs deeper than that. Challenging mainstream media representations of the problem also needs to be tackled. Whilst the increased awareness of cultural heritage destruction must be seen as a positive development, the focus on a small number of sites/areas/types of heritage perhaps distorts the true picture and underplays the breadth and depth of the problem across so many geographies, sites and communities.

It is heartening, though, that cross-disciplinary collaborations between the scientists and heritage specialists are bringing these issues to the fore. And even more so, that as such work develops, it will hopefully lead to practical measures for the protection of cultural heritage and the communities so devastated by its destruction. It is also to be hoped that the imminent ratification by the UK of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict will give further impetus to these efforts, enabling the UK to play a leading role in this work on the international stage.

Photograph (c) Laura Jones, V&A