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Protecting Cultural Heritage in an Uncertain Time: Members of NYU Washington, Friends of Florence, and the Italian Cultural Institute’s Symposium on Protecting Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage

November 9, 2016

Protecting Cultural Heritage in an Uncertain Time: Members of NYU Washington, Friends of Florence, and the Italian Cultural Institute’s Symposium on Protecting Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage

by Shannon Keene

img_3987On Wednesday, October 26, leaders from New York University’s Washington campus, Friends of Florence, and the Italian Embassy convened in Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great flood of Florence. These leaders stressed that although the flood took place fifty years ago, we need to remember that cultural heritage is always under threat.

On November 4, 1966, Florence experienced the largest flood in its history since the mid-1500s. Thousands of books, paintings, and other items were damaged by this flood, along with works by Cimabue, Ghiberti, and other notable Renaissance artists. Students and experts from all over the world came to help restore these paintings and books in hopes that they would be able to revert the pieces to their original form. Unfortunately, some pieces of cultural heritage were destroyed beyond repair. During this symposium, using this experience as an example, speakers emphasized the importance of preparing for not only cultural heritage destruction from terrorist groups, but also the need of preparing in advance to protect antiquities in the case of natural disasters.

The symposium began with a reflection on the vulnerability of cultural heritage by the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella. Nardella is an advocate for Florentine antiquities and calls on us to be more aware of the threats that these antiquities face. He discussed his ongoing campaign, #UnityinDiversity, which is a campaign dedicated to using culture as a vehicle for peace and using cultural heritage to unite the world instead of divide it using social media as a platform for sharing pictures and promoting discussion. It was also the name for the conference that was held in Florence, Italy last year. At this conference, he explained the importance of protecting not only Italy’s cultural heritage, but cultural heritage around the world. Nardella explained, “The most important strategy in protecting our heritage is political and cultural.” He also emphasized that it is the “duty of humanity” to protect our cultural heritage now and in the future. His remarks were inspiring and set the tone for the conference.

This symposium was held to highlight cultural heritage in an uncertain time. Cultural heritage is either being destroyed or looted at an alarming rate, and important pieces of history are becoming lost due to terrorist groups, natural disasters, or lack of preservation and care. Cultural heritage is our only link to humans that came before us. Artifacts and architecture from the ancient Romans, Byzantines, and Mesopotamians (just to name a few) are the targets of many attacks and lootings. The speakers at this symposium wanted to highlight the cultural heritage at risk, what risks are the most threatening, and ways we can prevent these artifacts from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.

The first panel began with an informative presentation by Norbert S. Baer, a physical chemist who also examines the use of technology to predict natural disasters, which can be used to protect cultural heritage before a natural disaster occurs. He was followed by Alda Benjamen, a historian who specializes in cultural heritage documentation and preservation. She discussed the importance of intangible cultural heritage, like language, and how to protect it. Language preservation is pivotal to the protection of cultural heritage because language is often used on ancient pottery and stone to describe life in the past. Finally, Stephanie Hornbeck spoke about her time in Haiti and how building structures to house antiquities and cultural heritage can be beneficial to a community and a people. Cultural heritage defines our current culture, so protecting it is also protecting ourselves and what we hold most valuable.

The second panel featured Khaled Hiatlih, the leader of Institute for Digital Archaeology’s (IDA) on-site reconstruction initiative in Syria, Scott Branting, an archaeologist that specializes in the Near East and geospatial science, and Donald H. Sanders, an archaeologist that specializes in computer graphics and virtual cultural heritage. This panel discussed the technologies that are used to rebuild or restore cultural heritage that has been damaged. Reconstructing damaged cultural heritage is important to our understanding of peoples that lived before us, which gives us insight into our society today. Without reconstructing cultural heritage, a part of our history would be lost.

Finally, the third panel focused on the feasibility, desirability, and ethics of reconstructing cultural properties. The speakers included James Janowski, who discussed the philosophical issues when thinking about restoration. Anna Paolini represented UNESCO and focused on the Arab States of the Gulf and Yemen and discussed architectural restoration. Finally, John Childs discussed the role museums play in restoration and preservation. It is important to analyze the philosophical issues when restoring artifacts and buildings because there is a line between where things can stay authentic and when they are over-restored. Museums also play an important role in protecting cultural heritage because they use cultural heritage to teach the general public about the importance of learning about culture and history.

Although the symposium was held to commemorate the damages and loss of cultural heritage in Florence fifty years ago, it outlined the importance of cultural heritage worldwide and what we can do to save it. All of the speakers present analyzed different types of cultural heritage and how to preserve them using the flood of Florence in 1966 as a wonderful example of what to do in the event of a disaster. The loss of cultural heritage is a loss that all of the humanity suffers from. It is not the job of one, but the job of all to protect, preserve, and safeguard our cultural heritage for generations to come.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks, Shannon Keene, a student at American University and intern at the Antiquities Coalition, for this guest post.