Fighting art crime and protecting heritage across the world: meet Italy’s “Blue Helmets of Culture”

The distinctive headgear of the Blue Helmets of Culture task force. Image: Twitter Ministero della Cultura

One of the most successful heritage protection units will continue its work in the upcoming years. The Italian government signed a decree to allow their art and heritage protection task force, nicknamed the “Blue Helmets of Culture” because of their distinctive headgear, to operate overseas on a direct request from Unesco. The unit, which consists of Italian art police officers and several heritage experts, could also be deployed in Ukraine.

Italian Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini signed the legislation to have the Blue Helmets operate in Italy and abroad, during the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers of Culture in Strasbourg on 1 April, the Art Newspaper reported. Unesco and Italy already reached an agreement in July 2021 about requesting the aid of the Italian based task force. This decree formalises that now not only Unesco member states, but Unesco can call upon Italy’s “monuments men.”

It is no coincidence the Italian task force has gained such a prominent role since its founding in 2016. “Italy is an international point of reference for protecting and safeguarding cultural heritage and our expertise is revered all over the world,” Franceschini stated. The idea was born from Unesco’s Unite4Heritage campaign, launched in 2015 to think about ways to prevent the destruction of heritage. Text continues below image

The Blue Helmets in action to safeguard Italian religious heritage damaged by earthquakes. Image: Youtube screenshot/TRT World

Meet the Monuments Men

The first heritage task force of its kind, the Blue Helmets includes Carabinieri from the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Italy’s art crime police force. Experts from the culture ministry, including art historians, restorers and scholars are also part of the team. “They catalogue and secure damaged or at-risk assets for subsequent conservation and restoration work”, Brig. Gen. Roberto Riccardi, Head of the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, said during a Unite4Heritage event at the Università della Svizzera.

The task force was first deployed in 2016 and 2017 after Italy was devastated by earthquakes, as well as after the floods in Venice in 2019. Abroad the Blue Helmets have trained more than 1000 Iraqi cultural heritage experts, saved historic buildings following the 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut, and aided Mexico’s cultural protection squad during natural disasters.

If well informed, all citizens can play a role in defending treasures that belong to the community.

Brig. Gen. Roberto Riccardi

Apart from tracking down stolen artefacts or safeguarding damaged heritage, education is a big part of the Blue Helmets’ mission. “Education is fundamental because many crimes occur also because of a partial knowledge of the sector’s regulations, due to a reduced awareness of the illegality of certain purchases”, Riccardi explained. Awareness-raising can help to combat crime: “If well informed, all citizens can play a role in defending treasures that belong to the community.”

The biggest future challenge for the task force might is adapting to the latest technology used for counterfeiting, trafficking and illegal excavating of heritage assets. Updating the Blue Helmets’ knowledge, for example, by comparing satellite or drone-captured images to older data and footage, is key according to Riccardi. “The latter is our most effective investigative tool, possessing an archive of some 8 million files, of which 1,300,000 refer to works still to be researched.”

Aid to Ukraine

Since the task force has experience with heritage in war-torn countries, the Blue Helmets could be a welcome addition to safeguard Ukraine’s damaged cultural heritage. Italy already offered to help rebuild Mariupol’s theatre and to provide the assistance of its “monuments men”, The Times reported. “The theatres of all nations belong to humanity,” Minister Franceschini said at the time. A ministry spokesperson confirmed the offer but added that the Blue Helmets can only start working after the armed conflict has ended. “While bombs are falling, we will not physically enter Ukraine. Afterwards, we could certainly be there.”

The bombed Mariopul Theatre. Image: Донецька обласна військова адміністрація Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

The current situation in Ukraine, and many other threats to heritage across the world, show the importance of task forces like the Blue Helmets. That is why Franceschini called for international organisations to launch their own task force of Blue Helmets. “It is vital that the EU or the UN adopt an instrument of this kind, as the UN has done to protect lives in peacekeeping missions”, he said. “Individual countries must not be forced to act alone.”

Sources: The Art Newspaper, The Times, Università della Svizzera

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