The week started with progress in resolving conflict over ownership of cultural heritage. An article in The New York Times indicated a trend towards voluntary repatriation of antiquities from museums in nations, such as the United States, to “source nations,” such as Italy and Greece. A few days later, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced higher standards for museums not only to document the history of ownership of objects in collections but also to justify, publicly, acquisition of objects that have incomplete records of provenance. While museums and source nations may have differing sentiments about the progress, the trend of voluntary repatriation and the announcement by the AAMD indicated increased cooperation between the two sides.
The week also started with France engaging militarily in Mali, which precipitated a poignant example of the challenges of protecting cultural heritage in political and armed conflict. Groups affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), such as Mujwa and Ansar Dine in northern Mali, had already been targeting religious monuments that violated a particular interpretation of Sharia law. While the Malian and French governments are bound by the 1954 Hague Convention, the Mujwa, Ansar Dine, and AQIM are not. In fact the destruction of a mosque and Sufi tombs in Timbuktu is a tactic in a broader strategic objective of gaining control in the region.
The effect of destruction, in concept, extends beyond the borders of Mali in that the mosque and tombs are World Heritage Sites, but targeting of cultural material has more direct implications within Africa. The mayor of Timbuktu, Ousmane Halle, decried the torching of the library, Ahmed Baba Institute, by extremists, and the destruction of the library has consequences across the continent. Through a joint agreement with South Africa, the library was a site for “conservation, research, and promotion of African manuscripts.” Such targeting of cultural heritage sites is not an uncommon practice in conflicts with non-state actors as reflected in a recent firebombing of a mausoleum in Tunisia and destruction of religious sites in northern Syria after opposition forces had gained control.
Whether seen as progress or regression in issues of cultural heritage, the events reveal implications for the role of cultural property in international affairs. The progress in cooperation on repatriation and the setback in protection of cultural heritage in conflict both reflect the increasing political significance of cultural property.
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