Last weekend, as Abu Dhabi hosted the Unesco-sponsored international conference on safeguarding the world’s cultural heritage, I spent a happy few hours wandering around the British Museum in London, a veritable treasure house that deserves its reputation as one of the world’s top museums.
Among the displays I visited were some of the results of 19th century excavations in Iraq. Winged bulls, steles, cuneiform tablets and more from long-vanished cities like Nimrud, Babylon and Ur. These were just a few among the many treasures on display. As I wandered among them, I thought of the Abu Dhabi conference and of the urgency of its appeal to bring an end to the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage that is now under way in Iraq and Syria, and in many other countries besides.
One key call from the conference was for the establishment of “safe havens”, to which movable artefacts could be transferred, by governments, for safety in times of conflict. That’s a difficult programme to implement, but, if practical ways can be found, it’s certainly worth doing. Such safe havens could be secure storehouses for some of the most important elements of global cultural heritage – at least for those that can be moved – until the conflicts pass.
Sadly, the same cannot be easily applied to great monuments threatened with, or actually undergoing, destruction – such as those of Palmyra, Nimrud, Aleppo and a host of other cities. However rapid the advances in modern technology that allow 3D printing to help in the production, for example, of a replica of Palmyra’s 3rd-century AD Arch of Triumph, nothing can really replace the original.
Many years ago, a Greek friend in London led a campaign to return the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum to their original home on the Acropolis in Athens. They were obtained 200 years ago and shipped to London, in an act which many believe to have been of dubious legality. The Parthenon, from which they came, had previously been severely damaged during armed conflict. This included a Venetian bombardment in 1687 – a long-forgotten antecedent for the destruction of cultural heritage during conflict that was the focus of the Abu Dhabi conference.
The means by which great institutions like the British Museum and the Louvre obtained their collections of key elements of global civilisation can, with hindsight, be viewed as a possibly reprehensible aspect of the exercise of colonial and imperial power. Also with hindsight, though, it’s obvious that, for example, the great Assyrian statues to be found in them are safer in London and Paris than they would be today in their places of origin. Such museums have, indeed, proven to be safe havens – storehouses of global cultural heritage.
I would not advocate a further filling of the storerooms of the British Museum or the Louvre with artefacts, large and small, from around the world, even from areas of conflict such as those discussed during last weekend’s conference. The world has long since moved on from the heyday of 19th-century acquisitions. The mummy of Egypt’s Tutankhamun, discovered by British archaeologists in 1922, is in Cairo, where it should be.
These role of these institutions has, however, evolved over the decades. They are of global significance – where else can one see such a display of elements of civilisations from throughout the world? At the same time, through programmes of sharing and exchange, as with our soon-to-open Louvre Abu Dhabi, their storerooms are being opened up. Some of the best of their treasures are no longer accessible only in Paris and London, and that's as it should be.
Years, perhaps decades, from now, will the UAE’s museums also house great collections that reflect global cultural heritage? Possibly, though the collections will have been obtained in different ways. In the meantime, perhaps the UAE can become a safe haven for the cultural heritage of the region.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture