Update: Eyes on UNESCO after destruction of Ukrainian heritage

22/04/2022: The next meeting has been postponed indefinitely. There is no comment on where or when the next meeting will be.

Damage caused to the Dormition Cathedral in Kharkiv (not verified). BY Міністерство внутрішніх справ України CC BY SA 4.0

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion on the 24th of February, numerous reports have commented on the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage: many monuments, buildings and other sites have been damaged, according to The Guardian. While many organisations openly condemned the invasion, institutes such as UNESCO are under fire to do more to stop the destruction of lives, livelihoods and heritage within the country.

Since the conflict started, heritage sites have been at risk, some indicating that a core task of the invasion is to wipe out large parts of the Ukrainian identity. The Maidan Museum, which documents Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, illustrated this as well in its outspoken address to the world:

It is no coincidence that in his last speeches before the attack, in which Putin justified and explained the need for a military invasion, he was making a “retrospective journey into history”. Pseudohistory, the essence of which has been the assertion that Ukrainians do not exist as a nation and the state of Ukraine is, in a way, a historical misunderstanding and a failed state. Putin has publicly announced his “crusade” against the national identity of Ukrainians, not only seeking to seize our land but also to destroy our language, our history, our culture.

Notable targets

The International Council of Museums drew attention to the 1954 Hague Convention, stating that both countries should abide by their international duty to protect heritage, even in armed conflict. Meanwhile, the Museums Association recognised that many Ukrainian museum professionals are at a particular risk: “Many museum workers in Ukraine have previously been involved in human rights movements and many museums provide space for the promotion and discussion of human rights. This puts museum workers at particular risk in the current situation.”

Their warnings are not ungrounded: UNESCO confirmed that at least 53 historical sites have been damaged during the invasion. One of the most notable targets was the Ivankiv Historical-Cultural Museum, which housed much work by influential folk artist Maria Prymachenko (1908–1997). The museum near Kyiv was destroyed in the early days of the invasion. The Assumption Cathedral in Kharkiv and the historic city centre of Chernihiv have also been damaged by bombardments carried out by the Russian army, according to the Ukrainian state news agency.

Pressure building after Jewish memorial shelling

Furthermore, Art News among others reported that at least two sites that mark the massacre of Jews during the Second World War have been hit or damaged by Russian attacks. The scale of damage at a Holocaust memorial at Kharkiv and the Babyn Yar site in Kyiv is unclear currently, as is the motivation of those doing the shelling. While Russian invaders have attempted to justify the invasion by suggesting that Ukraine needs “de-Nazification”, the damage done to such Jewish memorial sites sends out a rather different message, noted Business Insider.

In response, the Auschwitz Memorial released a statement on March 5 demanding that UNESCO address this issue. If nothing changes, the Memorial intends to prompt large debates about whether the UNESCO label is suitable for the Auschwitz-Birkenau site. (Text continues below tweet)

UNESCO in Russia: time is ticking

At times of cultural heritage crisis, many look towards the global body for heritage and culture, UNESCO to set the tone. And the heritage institute – which has 7 Ukrainian sites inscribed on the World Heritage list and a further 4 on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list – is facing a tough decision. UNESCO’s next World Heritage Committee meeting is only two months away, in late June. Important detail – it’s being held 750km east of Moscow, in the city of Kazan, Russia.

UNESCO is deeply concerned about the ongoing military operations and the escalation of violence in Ukraine. As stated by the UN Secretary-General, such operations are violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and are inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.

Whilst their statement denouncing the invasion is important, UNESCO’s passive approach to securing cultural heritage in Ukraine has caused concern. The organisation has been publishing articles about damage to heritage and pleading for extra protection, but cultural spokespersons from across Europe are expecting more, including the UK’s culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who told i news that the UK would boycott the event if it goes ahead.

Currently, the committee is made up of 21 member states. A formal vote to change the location of the meeting would require at least 2/3 of its members to agree, or a dedicated meeting by the bureau. The annually elected bureau is composed of seven states. Until 2023, Russia is the chair of the World Heritage Committee. It remains to be seen whether any member state wants to make the request in an official capacity.

It looks like UNESCO risks its reputation if no action is taken. There are many grave concerns about both collateral and intentional damage to Ukrainian heritage, much of which has already been lost. Some say UNESCO must go further than reminding Russian officials of their commitment to protecting cultural heritage during the war, and ensure that the next meeting does not make any concessions to Russia.

Making a difference in Ukraine

Many cultural heritage organisations are organising funding and equipment donations for Ukrainian museums and heritage sites.

  • The Institute of Conservation has published a list of materials which are needed by museums to protect objects. [icon.org.uk]
  • The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works is providing grants and funding for conservation at risk in Ukraine. [iiconservation.org]
  • Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online is a volunteer taskforce ensuring that Ukraine’s heritage presence online is also protected. [sucho.org]
  • The Network of European Organisations has compiled a list of job offers, depots for objects, ground support and more. [ne-mo.org]

A further list of initiatives across the globe to assist Ukraine and to protect its cultural heritage can be found at IIC. This includes job schemes, special funding, and other humanitarian aid projects.

Sources: Art News, The Art Newspaper, BusinessInsider, Digital Journal, The Guardian, ICOM, i news, Maidan Museum, Museums Association, Reuters, UNESCO

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