# 71 | Protecting Monuments | Daniel Sherman

             War destroys human beings and things, and among the latter, it destroys cultural property, which testifies to the pastness of the past.  Particular attention has been paid to the protection of such property, and this concern has been enshrined in law since the Hague Convention of 1906-1907 and followed up on in the UNIDROIT Convention of the 1990s.  In between these two dates, the Hague Convention, placed under the aegis of UNESCO, established in 1954 a treaty to which defenders of historical monuments threatened by the civil war in Syria have recently appealed.
Daniel Sherman closely studies here UNESCO’s archives in order to identify the fears, hopes, blind spots, and fragile solutions of people living during the years when the protection of monuments was already being associated with the doctrine of human rights.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Behind the Blue Shield:
Unesco and the protection of monuments in the 1950s

Daniel Sherman

          In September 2013, a little-known group called the U.S. Committee for the Blue Shield wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to take action under the Hague Convention to protect historic monuments threatened by the civil war in Syria. The brief news item in the New York Times about this appeal referred to the Hague Convention as an event, like a political convention, rather than what it actually is, a treaty concluded under the auspices of UNESCO in 19541.

But the relative obscurity of the “Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict” belies the symbolic importance the problem the treaty addresses has taken on in recent years.

Discussion of this treaty has hitherto been conducted largely by scholars of international law, who have placed it in a genealogy that goes back to the 1906-07 Hague Conference on the rules of war and extends to the 1995/1998 UNIDROIT convention on the protection of cultural property2. Such studies, though important, fail to reconstitute the context surrounding the Hague Convention itself.  It may seem self-evident that a 1954 treaty on this topic reflects the trauma provoked by the massive destruction of the two world wars. Yet a closer examination of UNESCO’s archives yields a somewhat more complex story in which horror of the last war and anxiety about the next combine to forge a document impregnated with utopian internationalism while improbably vaunting its own practicality.  In the allotted space of this “letter,” I will confine myself to three points:  the coincidence between the views of high-ranking UNESCO officials and those of members of the general public, the effort to concretize public interest in a juridical status equating monument protection with human rights, and the way the Hague Convention embodies an imperfect attempt to conceive of a future confict as manageable.

The Susceptibilities of Peoples
           The fear of war, as well as the hope that the protection of monuments can somehow help mitigate its effects, is palpable in a letter to UNESCO from a young, Ukrainian-born architect writing from New York in 1949.  Apollinary Osadca suggests that the organization create an international committee to protect monuments (something already under discussion, though apparently without his knowledge).  In an English all the more touching for its errors, Osadca describes his preoccupation with the next war, with its unavoidable toll of destruction, as a kind of premonitory shame:  “Shall we allow, that before our eyes are distructed the priceless architectural monuments, the acquisite [of] the mankind during some thousands of years?  What shall we give on this place?  What shall we leave to our children?”3 Ten years later, UNESCO’s Office of Museums and Monuments received a letter from a resident of Grosse Pointe, Michigan named Russell McGuire, who described himself as “intensely interested in the cause of artistic resoration and conservation.”  Requesting more information about the office’s activities, McGuire asked, “Because France suffered so terribly as a result of World War II I would like to know if any of the fifty cities where cultural and historical property was damaged or destroyed have attempted to reconstructor restore the property, or was the ruble [sic] merely celared away and new structures erected?” He continued:  “Tell me, were the museums, libraries, badly damaged by the War?”4

The sense of a profound connection between human populations and their most important cultural monuments, both fixed and mobile, is expressed most concisely in the preface by UNESCO’s second Director General, Jaime Torres Bodet, to a 1950 report on efforts undertaken internationally to protect historic monuments.  “The terrible damage caused by the war,” he wrote,“has given the conservation of that heritage a special urgency: it is no longer merely a matter of safegarding culture; we are now concerned with the susceptibilities of the peoples, and their attachment to the glorious relics of their past.”5  This idea crystallized in an exchange between UNESCO’s legal counselor (conseiller juridique), Pierre Lebar, and the head of its Office of Museums and Monuments, Jan Karel Van der Haagen.  In 1953 Lebar asked his colleague to draft a brief statement on monuments for an upcoming debate of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights.  Lebar reminded Van der Haagen that deliberations over the Human Rights Convention of 1948 had included discussion of so-caled “cultural genocide,” including the “systematic destruction or disuse of historic monuments and religious buildings, destruction or scattering of historic, artistic, or religious documents or artifacts and of objects used in religious observance.”6 Although the Human Rights Convention in the end eliminated the concept of cultural genocide, which legal advisers considered too vague, the problem of such destruction remained among the proeccupations of the commission7. Van der Haagen observed that for what would become the 1954 Hague Convention, UNESCO was concerned less with “the value that some objects have for a particular group” than with “cultural property as such,” whether or not still in use, “considering them all as integral parts of universal cultural heritage.” He proposed that a future treaty on cultural genocide contain a provision that “the right to enjoyment of places of worship and of cultural heritage will be affirmed in a separate treaty.”8 The 1954 Convention thus represented for UNESCO a way to preserve its own authority (even if it was chiefly moral) over the issue of cultural preservation while establishing a very visible link to the already prominent issue of human rights.

Precaution of Aftermath?
          But the Hague Convention also testifies to the particular anxieties of the moment, and to the difficulty private citizens and international officials alike had of imagining what a new European conflict might be like.  According to the legal scholar who has published the most exhaustive study of it, the 1954 Hague Convention concerned only conflicts conducted with conventional weapons; as with all contemporaneous conferences concerned with international human rights law, the question of weapons of massive destruction was “left on one side.”9 But a note from van der Haagen to Torres Bodet in March 1951 regarding the imminent installation of NATO headquarters near Versailles makes clear the extent to which the uncertain future of military doctrine and strategy weighed on the minds of UNESCO officials.  At first reassured by the military tradition of not bombarding enemy headquarters, van der Haagen was shocked to learn that in case of war the supreme commander, at the time General Eisenhower, planned to go elsewhere.  “We are all aware,” he wrote, “that military installations make an entire region the target for bombs, and in modern warfare four kilometers are nothing.  Everyone knows that the palace of Versailles is of the highest cultural importance among monuments and is part of our universal heritage.  If the French government continues to accept the installation of these headquarters in Versailles, it will be a mortal blow to Unesco’s efforts to regulate armed conflict.”10 
It seems unlikely that a top UNESCO official would regard with indifference the prospect of the annihilation of much of the population of the Paris region – yet Van der Haagen’s only expressed concern in this letter is with the cultural heritage of Versailles.  We are thus obliged to imagine, almost six years after the first test of a nuclear weapon by the United States, and two years after the first Soviet test, a conflict allowing time for the evacuation of the civilian population and in which the greatest threat to civilization is the destruction of heritage.  If such a scenario is closer to some events that have taken place subsequently than anyone could then have imagined, this raises more questions than it answers about what the media publicizes and what the Western public retains.  For van der Haagen and his contemporaries, heritage protection clearly became not only an objective in itself but a way of preparing for a war that could be conceived as survivable rather than, as many in the fifties feared, apocalyptic.  It as almost as though, faced with the impossibility of knowing what the next war would be like, people at the time had to find ways of warding it off.  Neither van der Haagen nor his correspondents want to admit their powerlessness in the face of another war, or (to try to see things more from their perspective), their inability fully to imagine it.
Emblème pour la protection des biens culturels (article 16, alinéa 1)

Emblem for the Protection of Cultural Property.

A visible emblem

           The idea, both pragmatic and idealistic, that peacetime preparation can mitigate the effects of war imbues the Hague Convention from its preamble:  “Being of the opinion that such protection cannot be effective unless both national and international measures have been taken to organize it in time of peace.”11 Perhaps the most striking artifact of this idea is the protective emblem provided for in article 16 of the treaty, a blue and white shield the positioning of which – though the treaty does not specify whether it should be done before or after hostilities begin – designates buildings holding artistic treasures; deployed in triplicate the shield indicates cultural property under “special protection.” The placement of the blue shield requires at the very least the prior registration of the monument or facility in a national register or other instrument certifying its cultural importance. The history of signposting places protected under the laws of war, the obvious example being hospitals and first aid stations marked with a red cross, goes back at least to the Hague Conference of 1907, and some of the problems it had encountered, notably the fact that too obvious signage could actually provoke direct bombardment, seemed to those responsible for the 1954 treaty less important than before.  But here again, the idea of the sign seems designed to reassure more than to guarantee effective protection.
Emblème de protection spéciale des biens culturels (article 16, alinéa 2)

Emblem for the Special Protection of Cultural Property.

For all their limitations, the Hague Convention and the discussions from which it emerged do have the merit of posing significant questions about the importance we attach to cultural artifacts and their role as signs of – to use Walter Benjamin’s famous pairing – both civilization and barbarism.  Article 19 of the treaty makes clear that it applies to “conflicts not of an international character” binding both sides of civil wars to its terms and offering UNESCO assistance to protect heritage threatened by such conflicts12. One can hardly reproach the drafters of the Convention for not anticipating that, more than half a century later, cultural heritage would itself become the direct rather than collateral target of some groups – groups that, not coincidentally, blur the very boundaries between national and international.  During the 2014 conflict in Syria and Iraq, an article from the New York Times suggested that the destruction of monuments such as the tomb of Jonah in Mosul has provoked a profound outrage that might prompt civilian opposition to the forces responsible for this loss13. Another, from the online Artnet News,  struggles to reconcile dismay over the destruction of monuments with sympathy for human victims:

In the town of Sinjar, which also fell under attack, a number of shrines sacred to the Yazidis, a monotheistic religion related to Zoroastrianism, have been destroyed. Although the Conflict Antiquities blog has reported that the Sherfedin Shrine, the most sacred Yazidi site, and the Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir are still safe, others, such as the Shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, are no more. The human casualties have been far greater, with an estimated 10,000–40,000 Yazidis who escaped the ISIS massacre in town now stranded without food or water on a nearby mountain, according to the Daily Beast14.

We are all caught in the same dilemma.


1 Tom Mashberg, “Arts Beat:  Cultural Preservation Groups Ask Obama to Protect Syrian Heritage Sites,” New York Times, 11 September 2013, also available at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/11/cultural-preservation-groups-ask-obama-to-protect-syrian-heritage-sites/.

2 See, e.g., Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects (Cambridge:  Cambridge U.P, 2006), chapitre 5.

3 Archives de l’Unesco (herafter AU), Registry Cultural Property files, 2nd series 069: 7 “..66,”  letter from A. Osadca, 17 June 1949.  All subsequent references to AU are to this series.

4 AU, letter from Russell McGuire, 3 August 1959.

5 “Message de M. Jaime Torres Bodet, Directeur général de l’Unesco,” Museum 3: 1 (1950), 6, text published in both French and English.

6 AU, Pierre Lebar to van der Haagen and Edward Carter (head of the Library Division), 14 March 1953, with draft of memorandum to Jean Thomas, director of the Department of Cultural Activities.

7 Ibid.

8 AU, van der Haagen to Lebar, 16 March 1953.

Jiri Toman, The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict:  Commentary on the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocol, signed on 14 May 1954 in The Hague, and on other instruments of international law concerning such protection (Aldershot and Paris: Dartmouth/UNESCO, 1996), 23-24.

10 AU, van der Haagen toTorres Bodet, 16 March 1951.

11 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-L_ID=13637&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, consulted 6 August 2014.

12 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-L_ID=13637&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, consulted 9 August 2014.

­13 Tim Arango, “Tears, and Anger, as Militants Destroy Iraq City’s Relics,” New York Times, 31 July 2014.

14 Sarah Cascone,  “Are More Monuments under Threat from ISIS?” Artnet News, 8 August 2014, http://news.artnet.com/art-world/are-more-monuments-under-threat-from-isis-75383, consulted 9 August 2014.

Daniel Sherman is Lineberger Distinguished Professor of Art History and History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  His books include The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (1999) and French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975 (2011), the latter forthcoming in French translation from Les presses du Réel.  He was a fellow of the Institut d’Etudes Avancées de Paris in 2014 and is currently working on a project tentatively entitled “French Archaeology Between Science and Spectacle, 1900-1940.”






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