January 16, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Trashing the past 

Who we are and where we came from is a story articulated by the Whistler Museum but shaped by the community

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That these objects embody stories that transcend cultural barriers and paradigms makes them an important part of our collective heritage. The cradle of civilization birthed us all, regardless of contemporary religious differences. The development of fire, the wheel, language, the abacus, agriculture, speaks to us all. This may explain why many of us relegate the existence and work of museums to the general greater good. A thing we take for granted. Depend on. But don’t give much thought to beyond that. Unfortunately, museums globally are in a far more precarious situation than we realize.

One of the biggest stories of 2003 was the sacking of Iraq’s National Museum, the House of Manuscripts, and National Library, not to mention widespread looting of many Iraqi historical sites. Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, is considered the birthplace of the written word, the first cities, the crucible of civilization. The loss of Iraqi artifacts was widely heralded as a devastating blow to all humanity, and triggered endless jaunts of fingerpointing and pontificating about why those sites hadn’t been protected properly by U.S. and British troops, when the Iraqi Ministry of Oil had been so well-guarded from the war’s start.

That widespread looting would occur in Iraq was a no-brainer. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, a lucrative trade in Iraqi antiquities emerged, in which 10 regional museums were attacked and ransacked over the course of three years, and some 3,000 objects stolen, few of which were recovered.

Combined with the fact that places of conflict have always been vulnerable to looting, from ancient times to contemporary war zones, the pillage of Baghdad was written in the stars. Pillage and plunder were an early privilege of the victor, from Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes sacking Asia, to the Knights Templar, those Christian crusaders against Islam from 1100 to 1300, to the Nazi theft of Jewish art during World War II.

Even with the introduction of various United Nations Security Council resolutions and treaties concerning trade in cultural artifacts, national museums from war zones have been systematically plundered. Afghanistan, over the decade following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Kabul in 1988, lost 70 per cent of its museum collection. National museums in Somalia and Cambodia, as well as archeological sites in those countries, were ransacked during periods of instability.

Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, recently said that the greatest threat to cultural heritage sites was being in a war zone. "(They) are completely under threat and in many cases also being destroyed. So I would say if you can pinpoint the four or five critical war zones in the world – Congo, Iraq, Holy Land in Palestinian territories, Israel, Afghanistan, maybe some local areas of conflict in the Indian subcontinent – they’re dangerous for world heritage."

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