Thursday, 15 October 2015

Museum directors agree protocols to provide safe havens for endangered antiquities

Amidst armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has announced the release of protocols to help safeguard irreplaceable works of art and archeological materials that are currently in danger of destruction or trafficking.

The Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis provide a framework for museums to provide safe havens for works at risk from violent conflict, terrorism, or natural disasters.

In a press statement made earlier this month, the AAMD states that the Protocols allow owners/depositors whose works are at risk of damage or destruction to request safe haven at an AAMD member museum, where the works will be held until they can be safely returned. All deposited works will be treated as loans, preventing any issues of title ownership arising at a later date. Details of those works will also be made publicly available on a new section of the AAMD’s online Object Registry, ensuring transparency.

The Protocols consider the preservation of a work’s physical integrity as well as its safety, its provisions covering transport and storage, scholarly access, legal protections, exhibition, conservation issues, and the safe return of endangered works to the appropriate individuals or entities as soon as is feasible.

The AAMD has strongly encouraged its 240 members in the US, Canada, and Mexico to adopt these Protocols, and has invited museums around the world to use the Protocols in their efforts to protect endangered works.

Whilst not legally binding, these Protocols are indicative of the shifting attitudes towards the importance of international cooperation and intervention in protecting cultural heritage, and their release coincides with the first prosecution of cultural heritage destruction as a war crime.

“The scale of human suffering and loss of life that is taking place in Syria and other afflicted areas is devastating, and is compounded by the loss of unique works that are the record of different cultures and our shared humanity,” said Johnnetta Cole, President of the AAMD, and Director of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“The level of destruction and the intentional damage is deplorable and an attempt to eradicate cultural identity in tandem with the murder and repression of individuals. We stand with the international community in condemning these reprehensible acts of violence and brutal vandalism, and believe it is vital that we do everything in our power to help save endangered works for all people and for future generations.”

The AAMD’s press statement can be read in full here.

The full Protocols can be downloaded here.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Cultural heritage destruction prosecuted as a war crime for the first time: Islamist militant appears before ICC

In the first case of its kind, an alleged Islamist militant accused of destroying ancient monuments in Mali appeared last week at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged with damaging humanity’s cultural heritage. It is the first time cultural heritage destruction has been prosecuted as a war crime; the ICC has traditionally focused on atrocities committed against individuals.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi appears at the ICC in the Hague, Netherlands (Image: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images)


Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi is charged with war crimes of directing attacks against historic religious monuments and buildings, including nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali.

Al Mahdi, from the Ansar Tuareg tribe, was allegedly an active personality in the context of the occupation of Timbuktu, a ‘zealous member’ of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg extremist militia with links to al-Qaeda, and the head of the Hesbah (known as the ‘Manners' Brigade’), which enforced strict Islamist law in Timbuktu during civil unrest in Mali in 2012 and 2013. He is also charged with implementing the hardline Sharia law rulings of the so-called Islamic Court of Timbuktu, in particular the destruction of the nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque.

The situation in Mali was referred to the ICC by Mali’s government in 2012, and following an investigation a warrant for Al Mahdi’s arrest was issued in September 2015. Al Mahdi was arrested by the authorities of Niger and handed over to the ICC shortly afterwards.

Timbuktu’s cultural heritage

Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the ‘city of 333 saints’, was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. The mausoleums of Timbuktu have long been pilgrimage destinations for the people of Mali and neighbouring countries. As shrines to Timbuktu's founding fathers, who were venerated as saints by most of the city's inhabitants, they were widely believed to protect the city from danger. But fundamentalists considered this practice blasphemous. Of the city’s 16 mausoleums, some dating as far back as the 13th century, 14 were destroyed during Ansar Dine’s occupation of the city in 2012, along with mosques and approximately 4,000 ancient manuscripts.

Destruction of mausoleums and mosques during Timbuktu’s occupation (Image: AFP)

What next?

Following the defendant’s appearance before the Pre-Trial Chamber last week, a hearing is scheduled for 18 January 2016, where the Court will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a full trial.

This case is a watershed moment in the field of cultural heritage protection, and it has been suggested that the Court consider investigating the Islamic State's destruction of ancient archaeological sites in Palmyra. However, as neither Iraq nor Syria is a member of the ICC, the Court is unable to intervene without a mandate from the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile an initiative to reconstruct Timbuktu’s mausoleums led by the Malian government, UNESCO and international partners is nearing completion. “Here we have our response to extremism,” said UNESCO’s Director-General, “an example of the successful integration of culture in peace building and we must continue along this road.”

Reconstruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums nears completion (Image: CRAterre/Thierry Joffroy)

The ICC’s case information sheet for The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi can be found here.

More information on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage Site page here.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

"God Hates Renoir": A grass roots art critic speaks out

A strange tale of grass roots art criticism has unfolded in Boston this week. 

An Instagram account started by one Max Gellar, entitled Renoir Sucks at Painting, was taken onto the streets of Boston. Protestors (reportedly, about six of them) stood outside Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) carrying placards proclaiming that 'God Hates Renoir', 'Renoir Sucks', and the snappy 'ReNOir'. Their demand: MFA should take down its Renoirs, replacing them with other works kept in its storage vaults.

Photo: Lane Turmer /AP

'Why do so many people think he’s good?' the Guardian reports Gellar as asking. 'Have you looked at his paintings?' They are, according to him, 'empty calorie-laden steaming piles', the decision to hang which in public galleries 'represents an act of aesthetic terrorism'.

It is not clear how serious the protest is. The Huffington Post reports Gellar as saying it is 'meant to be taken more ironically than literally', but Gellar's more genuine point appears to be the question of who is entitled to decide what deserves space in national galleries. 'Curators,' he is reported to have said, 'lack the courage to say, ‘Hey, wait, everybody’s been wrong this whole time.’ They’re not looking at the paintings.' 

Either way the story is reminiscent of another, more famous instance of an art critic attacking a painter's work: Whistler v Ruskin, the 1878 libel case in which J M Whistler sued the famous critic John Ruskin over his published letter commenting on some of Whistler's paintings, in particular the impressionistic Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket. Ruskin, in a pithy comment worthy of Gellar, wrote that Whistler's work was like 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face', enraging Whistler until he finally took the matter to the courts - rather to the amusement of the public, which was impressed neither by Ruskin's over-personal critique nor Whistler's arguably over-sensitive reaction.

J M Whistler
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,
The Detroit Institute of Arts 

Luckily for Gellar, Renoir, who died in 1919, is not around to follow Whistler's lead and sue - it is a general principle that the dead cannot be defamed. But even if he were alive he might be put off by the outcome of that historic trial. The painter won, but instead of the £1000 he had claimed, poor Whistler was given just one farthing in nominal damages, leaving him in heavy debt due to paying his own costs.

Meanwhile, the MFA shows no signs of bowing to public demand, and Renoir's works remain on view to offend or delight, as the case may be.