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United States museums provide emergency support for Syrian museum collections
Gunfire damage to 6th century AD mosaic from Farkiya, Ma'arra Museum, Idlib, Syria. Photo courtesy Ali Othman and the Ma’arra Museum.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- In addition to the high toll that Syria’s four-year-old civil war has had on its people and infrastructure, Syria’s cultural heritage has been and continues to be destroyed at an unprecedented rate. World Heritage sites like the historic city of Aleppo and Krak des Chevaliers, as well as medieval Christian cemeteries and numerous archaeological sites and museums, have been subjected to extensive raiding and looting.

In an effort to help stem the loss of the region’s significant cultural heritage, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in cooperation with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, have come together to offer assistance for museum curators, heritage experts, and civilians working to protect cultural heritage inside Syria. A three-day training program, “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections,” focusing on safeguarding high risk collections, was completed in late June; additional training programs are being planned, pending funding.

“While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage,” noted Brian Daniels, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programs, Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum. “This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.”

About 20 people from several Syrian provinces attended the first training, held in an undisclosed location outside of Syria, and facilitated by Dr. Daniels; Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer, Smithsonian Institution; and Robert Patterson, exhibits specialist, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Workshop leaders were joined by Syrian scholars Salam al-Kuntar, lecturer, University of Pennsylvania; Amr Al-Azm, chair of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force and associate professor, Shawnee State University; and Ali Othman, researcher, Université of Paris I. Technical assistance for the program was provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace (Washington, D.C.) and The Day After Association (Brussels, Belgium), a Syrian-led civil society NGO. The training was funded by the Smithsonian and the J. M. Kaplan Fund (New York).

The objectives of the workshop were three-fold: to offer information on how to secure museum collections safely during emergencies; to provide participants with basic supplies for packing and securing museum collections, and to begin a dialogue among Syrian participants about emergency responses. “This workshop fits the model of heritage preservation promoted by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center,” said Richard M. Leventhal, the Center’s Executive Director. “Local communities are best equipped to identify heritage in need of preservation and protection, and this is precisely what is happening in Syria. We are pleased to work alongside communities in Syria and other places around the world to support these efforts.”

Conditions at the Ma’arra Museum in Idlib province, famous for its collections of Byzantine mosaics, were a subject of much discussion and concern. The museum has received collateral damage in the fighting and come under direct attack by ISIS units. The workshop was able to offer some suggestions for stabilization in the current situation and provide emergency conservation supplies.

Ms. Wegener stressed the importance of bringing people together in a collaborative environment to address situations like those in Syria. “Workshops like these allow us to work directly with the cultural heritage professionals and activists who are on the ground caring for damaged and at-risk collections. We provide them practical information about protecting collections and sites, along with critically needed supplies and equipment. In return, we learn a great deal from our Syrian colleagues.”

While June’s emergency training program is seen as a critical first step, Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with the cooperation of the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, are gearing up to launch an extensive new project to document current conditions and future preservation needs, tracking and reporting intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.

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