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Meet the heroes who risked their lives for our cultural heritage

Ahead of the free online course Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, Meg Lambert, a teaching assistant at the University of Glasgow, shares the stories of some truly heroic individuals who have risked everything to preserve examples of cultural heritage. 

Many collectors of antiquities believe that their collecting is a legitimate method of saving objects. They argue that their participation in the art market, both licit and illicit, rescues objects from much worse fates, such as destruction by the elements or ignorant farmers, or languishing in obscurity in musty museum basements.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Buying antiquities does not help protect them and in fact legitimises looting of ancient sites, poorly guarded museums, and results in communities torn apart by conflict.

True protection of cultural heritage involves far more grit and sacrifice, perhaps more than you would imagine. Arguments from collectors are rendered rather flimsy when considering the lengths some people have gone to in order to prevent the illicit antiquities trade at its source. At plundered archaeological sites and vulnerable museums, a tenacious few have routinely put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect the cultural heritage in their care. Below are a few of the most notable, many of whom have risked injury and even death to prevent their beloved heritage.

Walter Alva

Walter Alva speaking at the US embassy in Peru in 2011.
Walter Alva speaking at the US embassy in Peru in 2011. Photo by Embajada de EEUU Perú on flickr, licensed under CC by 2.0.

In 1987, 35-year-old Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva was already the Director of the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque and a tireless campaigner for the protection of ancient sites. He was well known to the general Peruvian public for speaking against looting in the media and addressing schoolchildren on the importance of preserving archaeological sites for Peruvian heritage.

But in February of 1987, Alva was presented with his most challenging venture yet when, called from his home in the middle of the night, he identified 23 looted artefacts confiscated by police. The objects had been looted from Huaca Rajada, a man-made burial mound in the town of Sipán from the Moche civilisation. The Bernal brothers had first mined the site for beautiful gold artefacts that eventually found their way onto the international art market, and the impoverished local community had descended upon the huaca in the hopes of finding valuable leftovers.

Despite scepticism, little funding, and no official permission, Alva assembled a small team to excavate Huaca Rajada under a 24-hour police guard. The excavators endured the taunts of angry villagers and even slept in looters’ tunnels to avoid being pelted with stones. Alva slept with a revolver by his side. Thanks to his actions and his team, the Huaca Rajada yielded the lavish tomb of the “Lord of Sipán”, which revolutionised scholarly understanding of the Moche period and has been heralded as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the modern-day town of Sipán was so hostile to Alva’s efforts that, after the excavation, he could not go there without a police escort for fear of his life.

In order to further share Peru’s national treasures with Peruvians and the world, Alva began a campaign to build the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum. The museum opened in November 2002, and he has served as the museum’s director since then.

Walter Alva is a Friend of the Trafficking Culture Project.

Donny George

A picture of Dr Donny George
Dr Donny George.

In 2003, Donny George was was Director General of Research and Studies for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq. When the United States invaded and fighting in Baghdad was imminent, a plan was put in place to protect the Iraq National Museum. Working in shifts, the museum leaders took turns spending nights in the museum itself.

But as it became too dangerous to travel through the city, the plan fell apart and the museum workers and archaeologists assigned to protect the museum left in droves. George, however, decided to stay, along with the chair of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Dr Jabir Khalil Ibrahim.

Despite missiles falling on the telecommunications centre across from the museum, the two were resolved in their post. When only five workers remained, they decided to hunker down in the museum basement. But when George returned with the water and bread, Khalil stopped him. Outside were three men in the museum gardens carrying rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, aiming at the approaching American tanks. George and Khalil were forced to flee. In the days after, George attempted to return to the museum through blocked bridges, the explosions continuing to rock the city, and the pervasive American troops, to no avail.

Inevitably, the museum was looted. An estimated 15,000 artefacts were stolen, along with many of the museum’s computers and technology. Not long after, Donny George was named as Director of the Museum. Working alongside Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the US Marines, George was instrumental in investigating the thefts, and ultimately succeeded in bringing half the stolen objects back to Iraq. Due to threats to his family, George fled for Syria in 2006, and then to the United States, where he became a Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Stony Brook University. Tragically, Donny George died of a heart attack on 11 March 2011. He was only 60 years old.

You can read Donny George’s obituary in The New York Times.

Khaled al-Asaad

An arch in Palmyra's colonnade.
An arch in Palmyra’s colonnade, sadly destroyed in 2015. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Khaled al-Asaad made a monumental contribution to Syrian history and archaeology. Tragically his legacy cannot be remembered without recalling the horrific violence he endured and the ultimate sacrifice he made.

Al-Asaad was born in Palmyra in 1934, studied as an archaeologist, and became the principal custodian of the ancient site of Palmyra in 1963, aged just 29. His dedication to Palmyra’s history alone should have earned him immortality in the public memory. Not only did he succeed in having Palmyra named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but he was also involved in extensive excavations and restorations throughout the ancient city, was fluent in Aramaic and regularly translated texts, and was dedicated to bringing the ancient Palmyran civilisation to the general public through numerous publications and exhibitions. Though al-Asaad retired in 2003, succeeded by his son Walid, he continued to work tirelessly to preserve and promote Palmrya’s archaeological heritage, and was sought worldwide for his passion and expertise.

In May 2015, Tadmur, the modern city of Palmyra, and the ancient site of Palmyra came under ISIS control. Prior to the occupation, al-Asaad helped evacuate the city museum of its priceless historical artefacts. ISIS subsequently captured al-Asaad, along with his son. For a month he was tortured, allegedly to reveal the location of the artefacts he had helped to conceal. On 18 August 2015, he was publicly beheaded and his body suspended from a traffic light, bearing a placard listing his alleged crimes. His murder has been mourned worldwide.

You can read Khaled al-Asaad’s obituary in The New York Times.

Museum workers at the National Museum of Bosnia, 1992-95 and 2011-2015

An image of the National Museum of Bosnia
The National Museum of Bosnia. Photo by Jennifer Boyer on flickr licensed under CC by 2.0.

The National Museum of Bosnia, established in 1888, has long had trouble catching a break. The museum survived World War 1 and 2, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, most poignantly, the Bosnia-Herzegovina interethnic conflict from 1992 to 1995. During this time, 100,000 people were killed. Despite the museum being hit by hundreds of shells, a tank going through the wall of a director’s office, and the street outside the museum being nicknamed “Sniper Alley”, the museum remained open.

Andrea Dautovic, the museum’s Chief Librarian and staff member for 35 years, told Al Jazeera“But even then it was not abandoned and could still be visited. Museum staff were always active in the building, and small exhibitions continued to take place. Staff would sleep here because fighting made it impossible to leave.” Miraculously, the museum did not burn down and the collection remained intact.

In a cruel twist of fate, the museum languished in peacetime. Due to political oversight, the peace deal struck between Bosnian and Serbian leaders put no state body in charge of funding the museum. Consequently, debts racked up throughout the years, as debates of responsibility filtered unsuccessfully through political red tape. Often, funds were insufficient to cover electricity and heating bills. For 13 months, from 2011 through 2012, the 62 staff members worked for nothing, as there was no longer money for salaries. In 2012, the museum was forced to close to the public. For three years, curators continued to work every day in conditions described as “inhumane”.

Happily, the museum reopened in September 2015 thanks to I am the Museum, an initiative organised by activists and museum staff. Through a series of art actions, such as portraits and stories of the museum’s workers, I am the Museum successfully brought the museum’s financial and political plight to the attention of the public.

But the story isn’t over: although the museum is open, it still desperately needs help to remain so. A current list of needs (scroll down for English) is available on the museum website, ranging from things as simple as laptops and tables, to the costs of electricity for heating, to the costs of creating a team of junior curators. If you too want to help protect cultural heritage at risk, you can contact the museum at jasammuzej@gmail.com.

To learn more about the importance of protecting cultural heritage join the free online course Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime from the University of Glasgow now.

P.S. If you join the course, and tweet #ArtCrimeFL you have the chance to win one of four sets of Kulturmeister’s Famous Art Robberies cards. Have a read here for all the details.

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