By Brian I. Daniels, Richard M. Leventhal, Corine Wegener, and Susan Wolfinbarger
Why is cultural heritage targeted during conflict? Under what circumstances? By whom? Cultural heritage represents the physical manifestation of culture and history and forms a major component of a people’s identity. We know that it is often targeted or destroyed during periods of violence, but we know very little about why. As scholars committed to human rights and to the preservation of culture, we find it troubling that we do not have adequate answers to these very basic questions.
Our growing frustrations at the state of the field led us to apply for a planning grant from the National Science Foundation in 2014. As representatives of a leading research university, the world’s largest museum and research organization, and the world’s largest scientific society, we had two goals in mind. First, we wanted to bring together an international research community that would commit to undertaking the careful and systematic study of cultural destruction. Second, we planned to develop data collection standards for future investigations on the topic.
In an unfortunate confluence of events, we received the grant at almost the same moment that ISIS came to prominence in Syria and Iraq. It was no longer hard to argue to our colleagues in the social sciences that this topic warranted the attention of the academic community. ISIS’ high-profile destruction of cultural heritage highlighted the fact that very little scholarly investigation had been done to understand this form of cultural violence.
For nearly two years, we have held focus groups at academic conferences, met with individual scholars, and visited academic research groups. These conversations identified the need for a coordinating mechanism that could bridge the social scientific fields that study culture, heritage, and conflict. The Conflict Culture Research Network is the result of these discussions, and its affiliated scholars now stretch from Australia to Sweden, across universities and museums, and many points in between.
This coordination effort is now relevant in ways that we did not anticipate two years ago. Policy-makers are searching for explanations about the prominence of cultural violence. In a recent report, Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, observed that it is now “crucial to understand why deliberate destruction of cultural heritage takes place.” This research network is attempting to address her urgent call.
Today marks the public launch of our research network. Over the coming weeks, we will introduce the scholars who are involved and have them describe the parts they play in this effort. Please follow this blog to learn more.
Brian I. Daniels is director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Richard M. Leventhal is professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Corine Wegener is cultural heritage preservation officer for the Office of the Provost/ Under Secretary for Museums and Research at the Smithsonian Institution.
Susan Wolfinbarger is senior project director for the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program’s Geospatial Technologies Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.