Cedar: Culture Matters

An Argument for Cultural Heritage Preservation

by Liz Tunick Cedar | 1/23/20 2:10am

Culture matters. The sentence’s brevity belies its gravity. After a few frenzied days of threats and debates about targeting Iran’s cultural heritage sites, we’ve seen the triumph of legal frameworks and precedents that prevent the deliberate destruction of culture. These laws, treaties and conventions are all important, and to ignore them flagrantly is wrong and weakens our country’s moral standing.

It’s fortunate that these laws pulled us back from the brink, but the importance of protecting cultural heritage goes far beyond pieces of judicial paper. We are never going to recognize how much culture — often represented through cultural heritage — matters if the world pays attention only when cultural destruction is used as a tool of warfare. It is imperative to understand, celebrate and support all the ways that cultural heritage is critical. It serves as a bedrock of thriving communities; a means of rebuilding and source of resilience, and a source of pride and social cohesion.

It is my profession to care about, protect and promote global cultural heritage. In my role as manager of global cultural sustainability programs at the Smithsonian Institution, I work with partners across the world to enhance the capacity of cultural institutions and individuals to document and share information and stories about ways of life, artistic achievement, traditions and more. Indeed, the U.S. government has for many years, in many capacities, invested in the preservation of culture both domestically and abroad, particularly in countries in which geopolitical relations have been strained. In my work, I have been amazed and humbled by the power cultural heritage has in communities that so badly need strength and renewal, as well as by the pride and goodwill culture can engender in people whose nations are relatively stable.

I saw this happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the National Museum in Sarajevo served as a literal and figurative symbol of perseverance and rebuilding following a painful civil war. With the doors shuttered, dedicated museum professionals worked without pay to continue caring for the collections, standing steadfast in their belief that protecting their heritage was paramount. The reopening of the museum was cause for national celebration. I saw it happen in Colombia, where teams were working to design traveling exhibitions, and ultimately a museum, dedicated to memories and truth-telling about their own vicious civil war. With their focus on enduring peace, cultural markers helped the healing process.

There are many other examples I could cite, but given the current turmoil, the Middle East feels most pressing. The Smithsonian has sent teams to Iraq for many years, working side by side with Iraqi professionals — ethnically diverse men and women who come from every province in Iraq. This work has included conducting training programs, designing and implementing recovery plans in places such as Nimrud — an ancient archaeological site that was once the capital of the Assyrian empire — and creating a detailed “Mosul Heritage Map” for Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. military personnel so that in protecting the city they could avoid unintentional damage to important cultural sites. For a country ravaged by destruction, civil discord and simple neglect, Iraq’s work to recover cultural sites and museums has been a unifying effort — one filled with hope and promise.

Without cultural heritage, we can become unmoored and disconnected from others. Culture makes us human and helps us feel tied to the past. It can also connect us to a community or offer a sense of identity that, for many, provides a reason to live. Culture matters because it can pull us back from despair, give us joy and, ironically, push us toward reconciliation rather than destruction. 

The last few nights, as I’ve nursed my three-week-old daughter, I have contemplated a small lamassu figurine given to me by two dear colleagues who have been working in Iraq for many years and wondered if my children will have the opportunity to visit places like Nimrud. Lamassu are winged protective deities with human heads and bodies of lions or bulls — once such powerful and imposing figures, they’re now in need of protection themselves. Earlier this month, we avoided the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, but let us use this inflection point to reaffirm our commitment to preserving global cultural heritage as a crucial bridge across divides and an engine of reconciliation. At a time when we are trying to repair the fractious divides between people within and across countries, let us turn to culture — our diverse global intellectual, religious and artistic heritage — to help bring us together.

Liz Tunick Cedar is the manager of global cultural sustainability programs for the office of international relations at the Smithsonian Institution and a member of the Class of 2005.

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