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AC Discusses the Role of Cultural Heritage Professionals in Protecting Ukraine’s Heritage

February 10, 2023

February 2023 marks one year since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Among the many tragedies of war, including the countless lives lost, the communities and cities decimated, and the ruin of the economy, the plunder and destruction of the country’s rich cultural heritage is another devastation.

UNESCO reports that over 230 sites of cultural significance have been damaged or destroyed to date. Last month, it was reported that more than 15,000 pieces of art and artifacts have been pillaged, including a body of Scythian gold and nearly the entire collection of the Kherson Regional Art museum.

Priceless to the Ukrainian people, these treasures have the potential to be a valuable commodity to the cash-strapped Russian State and may greatly undermine the U.S.-led sanctions regime, Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, warns.

On February 6, the Antiquities Coalition gathered cultural heritage experts to observe one year of this international crisis and discuss the responsibility the U.S. and all of us have to better support the Ukrainian people and their heritage.

Moderated by Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, the panel of speakers included:

  • Dr. Kate Harrell, an archeologist working in international cultural heritage protection, investigator with the Conflict Observatory, and co-author of a recent policy brief for the AC Think Tank.
  • Dr. Sam Hardy, a cultural property criminologist and Head of Illicit Trade Research at the Heritage Management Organization, working closely with colleagues on the ground in Ukraine.
  • Dr. Chris Jasparro, a geographer and archaeologist specializing in cultural property protection and transnational security issues on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. Dr. Jasparro is also the co-author of another Think Thank policy brief.
  • Damian Koropeckyj, a consultant in cultural heritage risk management and co-author of the same policy brief as Dr. Harrell.

Davis emphasized that the American art market, valued at $28 billion and making up 43% of the global market, is likely the end destination for illicit objects looted from Ukraine or other areas of conflict. 

“When faced with similar crises, Washington has closed U.S. borders to suspect cultural material by requiring that at-risk imports have proof of legal export and authorizing law enforcement to seize those that do not,” Davis said. “This simple but effective step has made a major difference in past crises, but it has yet to happen today.”

The panelists shared tangible ways that foreign agencies, including governments and NGOs, and cultural heritage professionals can positively impact heritage preservation in Ukraine or other areas of conflict:

  • Inventory your current collection. There’s a growing reliance on the internet to understand what lives in museum collections, but bad actors like Russia can cut off the internet and eliminate the ability to determine what’s still secure. Specific to Ukraine, Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) is an initiative of over 1,500 international volunteers who are collaborating online to digitize and preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage.
  • Cooperation with other international heritage organizations. Rather than offering individual solutions to solve the Ukraine crisis, our panelists say working together on a global solution could achieve more effective results.
  • Employ Ukrainians in Ukraine. Our panel flagged that applications for funding get rejected because of the risk to workers, but Ukrainians desire to support their communities. These individuals will likely continue their work to preserve and protect their heritage, but will they have the support to safely do so?

As global conflicts continue to threaten communities and their unique heritage, the Antiquities Coalition hopes cultural heritage professionals will better understand how to play a role during times of crises to better preserve and protect our shared history. Watch the full webinar here.