Cultural Policy Center, Smithsonian co-host workshop on cultural heritage protection

“Cultural Policy Center, Smithsonian co-host workshop on cultural heritage protection”

by Rebecca A. Clay

Last month, researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathered in Washington, D.C. to explore how to preserve culture in the age of ISIS and other threats. The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center and the Smithsonian Institution convened the group of experts on cultural heritage protection.

Speaking at the workshop, U.S. Army archaeologist Laurie Rush said, for U.S. soldiers, protecting cultural heritage isn’t only focused on official repositories for artifacts, such as a museum. Sometimes their assignments take them to places far from city centers.

To outsiders, the pomegranate orchard in a tiny village in the remotest reaches of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province wouldn’t look like anything special. But the U.S. soldiers approaching the orchard noticed that the walls around it were painted blue, an indication that they surrounded something sacred. It turned out that the courtyard held a shrine containing a dagger once carried by a friend of the prophet Mohammed and was a site of weekly pilgrimage for villagers from the entire region.

“Is this going to be on any list of world heritage sites? No,” said Rush. But, she added, sparing cultural property from destruction goes beyond safety precautions for soldiers. “It offers a form of stability that helps communities in conflict recover in the long run.”

“Cultural heritage has become very contentious in situations of conflict,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for history, art and culture. “But cultural heritage can also be used to help bring people together.” This was the inspiration for the daylong workshop and public event that sought to identify research needs as well as intersections for interdisciplinary collaboration in this critical cultural policy area.

Protecting cultural heritage during war is an important priority. The United States is a party to the 1954 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. That doesn’t mean a commander can protect cultural property if doing so is not a military priority, said Rush. But, she added, “the better prepared our soldiers are in terms of their ability to identify and respect cultural property, the more likely they are going to come home safe and sound.”

Fulfilling the goals of the 1954 convention requires partnership between the military and academia, said Rush, a board member of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit, non-government organization dedicated to the prevention of destruction and theft of cultural property during conflict.

She urged academics not to share privileged information, noting that comments by scholars about the use of satellite imagery to assess whether or not ISIS was destroying cultural property actually pushed the extremists to destroy what they had previously only pretended to destroy.

“And don’t perpetuate myths, Rush continued. Take the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example. Even among scholars, said Rush, there’s a common misunderstanding that the Buddhas were destroyed because they had human faces. “In actuality they were destroyed to demoralize the Hazara people of the Bamiyan valley,” she said, explaining that the Taliban paid engineers to ensure the empty niches remained standing.


“Forensic Astronomer Solves Fine Arts Puzzles”

“Forensic Astronomer Solves Fine Arts Puzzles”

by Jennifer Drapkin and Sarah Zielinski via “Smithsonian Magazine

“In painter Edvard Munch’s Girls on the Pier, three women lean against a railing facing a body of water in which houses are reflected. A peach-colored orb appears in the sky, but, curiously, casts no reflection in the water. Is it the Moon? The Sun? Is it imaginary? Does it matter?

To Donald Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University, the answer to the last question is an emphatic yes. Olson solves puzzles in literature, history and art using the tools of astronomy: charts, almanacs, painstaking calculations and computer programs that map ancient skies. He is perhaps the leading practitioner of what he calls “forensic astronomy.” But computers and math can take him only so far.

For Girls on the Pier, Olson and his research partner, Texas State physicist Russell Doescher, traveled to Asgardstrand, Norway, the resort town where Munch made the painting in the summer of 1901. By mapping the area and studying old postcards, the pair determined the exact location of the original pier (which had been torn down), the heights of the houses and the spot where Munch likely stood. They then retraced the paths of the Sun and the Moon across the sky at the time Munch was there.

They concluded that the setting Sun did not appear in that section of sky at that time, but the Moon did. As for the missing reflection, it was not an artistic choice, as some art historians had proposed, but a matter of optics: from the artist’s perspective, the row of houses blocked it. . . .”