How Ukraine’s Works of Art Are Being Saved in Wartime–Using the Lessons of World War II

Much in Ukraine has been lost since the Russ­ian inva­sion com­menced this past Feb­ru­ary. But efforts to min­i­mize the dam­age have been respond­ing on all fronts, and not just geo­graph­i­cal ones. The preser­va­tion of Ukrain­ian cul­ture has become the top pri­or­i­ty for some groups, in response to Russ­ian forces’ seem­ing intent to destroy it. “Cul­tur­al her­itage is not only impact­ed, but in many ways it’s impli­cat­ed in and cen­tral to armed con­flict,” says Hay­den Bas­sett, direc­tor of the Vir­ginia Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry’s Cul­tur­al Her­itage Mon­i­tor­ing Lab, in the Vox explain­er above. “These are things that peo­ple point to that are uni­fy­ing fac­tors for their soci­ety. They are tan­gi­ble reflec­tions of their soci­ety.”

This very qual­i­ty made them a sad­ly appeal­ing tar­get for Russ­ian attacks. As the video’s nar­ra­tor puts it, Vladimir Putin “has made it clear that iden­ti­ty is at the ide­o­log­i­cal cen­ter of Rus­si­a’s inva­sion,” osten­si­bly an effort to reuni­fy two lands of a com­mon civ­i­liza­tion. For Ukraine, the strat­e­gy to pro­tect its own cul­tur­al her­itage dur­ing wartime involves two phas­es of work.

First, “iden­ti­fy what needs pro­tect­ing,” already a require­ment of the 1954 Con­ven­tion for the Pro­tec­tion of Cul­tur­al Prop­er­ty in the Event of Armed Con­flict (known as the “Hague Con­ven­tion). In Ukraine’s case, the list includes no few­er than sev­en UNESCO World Her­itage Sites.

Step two is to secure these cul­tur­al trea­sures, whether they be paint­ings, sculp­tures, build­ings, or any­thing else besides. This requires the col­lab­o­ra­tion of “gov­ern­ment agen­cies, mil­i­taries, NGOs, aca­d­e­mics, muse­um insti­tu­tions,” says Bas­sett, as well as of vol­un­teers on the ground phys­i­cal­ly safe­guard­ing the arti­facts. This often involves hid­ing them when­ev­er pos­si­ble, and “if his­to­ry is any indi­ca­tion,” says the nar­ra­tor, “col­lec­tions have moved under­ground or out­side of major cities, or out­side the coun­try entire­ly.” So it was in Europe under the maraud­ing of Nazi Ger­many, includ­ing, as seen in the France 24 seg­ment above, with hold­ings of the Lou­vre up to and includ­ing the Mona Lisa. The state of world geopol­i­tics today may have us won­der­ing if we’ve tru­ly learned the lessons of the Sec­ond World War, but at least the fight to save Ukrain­ian cul­ture reminds that we haven’t for­got­ten them all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sav­ing Ukrain­ian Cul­tur­al Her­itage Online: 1,000+ Librar­i­ans Dig­i­tal­ly Pre­serve Arti­facts of Ukrain­ian Civ­i­liza­tion Before Rus­sia Can Destroy Them

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Ukraini­ans Play­ing Vio­lin in Bunkers as Rus­sians Bomb Them from the Sky

Lis­ten to Last Seen, a True-Crime Pod­cast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Mil­lion Art Heist

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Why Rus­sia Invad­ed Ukraine: A Use­ful Primer

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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