OUR COLUMNIST SCULPTURESTEPH REFLECTS ON THE CRISIS OF THE INTERNATIONAL MECHANISMS DEDICATED TO THE PROTECTION OF THE WORLD CULTURAL HERITAGE:
‘In 1959 UNESCO founded ICCROM in Rome, which in turn supported the International Council of Museums (ICOM), in an attempt to develop international standards in the care of cultural property and provide a forum for interchange of ideas on best practise in all aspects of curating cultural heritage.
The motivation for this, is the universal appreciation of the importance of cultural heritage to us humans, either as individuals and/ or a community, society and culture.
Cultural heritage, objects, monuments and landscapes, are tangible evidence for our cultural (civilisation) history, or what makes us human, and lies at the heart of cultural identity.
Simultaneously there is also the understanding and/ or appreciation that in order to safe guard the moral ideal to which to aspire; you cannot enforce these ethics through consequential (ie. punishable) law, as this would always require some sort of judgement made by humans about humans as to what is right or wrong.
‘Judgement’ of such aspects is flawed and always biased 9because of being uman and therefore subjective), as it is always determined by the judging individual or group’s values, fashions, tastes, and opinions- the complete opposite to what the ethics of keeping Cultural Heritage protected (including from its abuse for propaganda) are there to safeguard.
The definition of World Cultural Heritage implies that we all are the custodians of these monuments, sites, regardless of faith, gender, culture, nationality, entrusted with the responsibility to ‘care’ and protect them for future generations without altering them to a specific aesthetic or political expression.
The action of the Taliban in 2001, displayed their ignorance and further more their disregard for internationally accepted and defined ethical values, with the destruction of these World Heritage monuments. What made these statues so special, apart from the size, craftsmanship, aesthetics, etc… was that they displayed different styles influenced by different Religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), baring evidence for a region and times of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence of various Faiths. An important statement to protect and likely the message the Taliban was keen to erase.
One of the arguments that were made for leaving the site post Taliban destruction as it is, was that there now is a large Muslim community, who could feel ‘offended by these monumental sculptures’.
This argument was made by an UNESCO ICOMOS official, and is more of a lame excuse to not do anything rather than a significant argument within a wider discussion (including the Muslim community) of how to actively deal with the destruction of what has been defined to be protected.
It does also at the same time undermine why anyone should bother in the first place to identify, define, protect and indeed observe the ethics and World Cultural Heritage, if it is that ‘simple’ to just get rid of it, if you, for your own insecurities feel so bothered by it that you have to destroy it.
The German Team have failed and caused some significant damage to the site but more importantly to their and UNESCO/ ICOMOS reputation. I would like to think that they did embark on this with good intentions at heart (and I have to admit as a sculpture conservator you do want to somehow ‘resurrect’ these outstanding monumental works) but didn’t ‘go about it in the right way’.
Considering that UNESCO, ICOMOS are organisations made up of human beings of both genders, different cultures and nationalities, communication, or more specifically the language that is used becomes the most important part to explain, explore, debate, and understand what everyone is talking about when defining ethics, and how these are to be maintained and upheld in practice. Lost in translation?
That in our modern age of mass communication, no one seemed to have been aware of what the other was doing, approving, managing and planning, raises some serious questions (and reminds me of the confusion post building of the tower of Babel or Babylon). Either no one did bother to inform anyone else because they didn’t want to- or maybe they didn’t know they had to or who to contact, contacts were made and communicated but not understood or ignored, or they were communicated and approved by someone with the appropriate title and authority on paper- but without actual authority, etc…
It’s a mess, basically…and I did expect this sort of thing from banks, and governments but to find this incompetence in communication and care for Cultural heritage should have us all worried’.