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Conflict, Conservation and Culture Heritage

Elisabeth Schellekens

Credit: Monique Kooijmans

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict outlaws the willful damage or destruction of cultural heritage in war zones. This, and other legal instruments, make such damage or destruction a war crime. Such acts, potentially punishable by imprisonment, nonetheless seem to have become a more integrated and carefully orchestrated part of many armed conflicts, and legally binding treaties seem not to have had the deterring effect that cultural heritage and museum practitioners, lawyers and members of the general public had hoped they would. In fact, one might even make a case for the view that becoming, for example, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has rendered certain historical locations and artefacts more vulnerable to intentional destruction in virtue of the high media visibility which goes hand in hand with such international recognition and status.

Several high-profile cases illustrate the dangers associated with the increased politicization of the global value of cultural heritage artefacts and sites, including the blowing up by Al- Qaeda of the so-called ‘Giant Buddhas’ in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley and the widely broadcasted demolition by ISIL of Hatrene objects in the Museum of History in Mosul. Some headway has clearly been made in terms of pursuing criminal prosecution and implementing international war crime law, as illustrated by the 2016 conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi by the International Criminal Court (ICC), for ordering attacks on religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu during the 2012 occupation by Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda. Yet, we are still only in the early stages of aligning our sense of injury, grievance and loss at the “weaponising” of cultural heritage destruction in armed conflict with more pro-active responses and preventative measures.

A host of practical difficulties, often underpinned by considerably less tangible philosophical concerns, arise in connection with what may be described as our duties or obligations towards those historical artefacts and sites ‘which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science’ (UNESCO 1972 Recommendation Concerning the Protection at National Level, of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Definition of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Article 1). For not only can legal obligations be in tension with one another, they may also clash with the moral duties we deem ourselves to have towards these artefacts and sites. In other words, even when there is agreement that, say, preservation is paramount and that the global community has a genuine responsibility to safeguard our cultural heritage, it is far from always obvious precisely how such protection is to be ensured – or indeed how various possible courses of action aiming at such preservation may be justified or warranted within a broader ethical framework.

The debate has a strong philosophical resonance, and traditional philosophical tools, such as conceptual analysis and implementing suitable models of logical argumentation, can often be of considerable help. Questions we can usefully press from this perspective include, for example, ‘What does it mean to say that we have an obligation to an artefact or site?’, How should we reason when different kinds of obligations seem to clash with one another?’, Can one kind of obligation (e.g. moral) surpass or trump another (e.g. legal), and if so on what grounds?’, and ‘Are preventative measures always defensible per se?’.

The ongoing case of the Crimean gold artefacts is an interesting example here. In February 2014, over two thousand artefacts from several museums on the Crimean peninsula were loaned to the Allard Pierson Museum of the University of Amsterdam for display as part of an exhibition entitled “Crimea - Gold and Mysteries of the Black Sea”. The Scythian artefacts, crafted by an ancient nomadic people who inhabited the steppes between the Danube and the Don from the 8th century BC, include very valuable helmets, ancient jewellery, decorative objects and sheaths.

When the Russian army invaded the Crimean peninsula just weeks after the arrival of these artefacts in The Netherlands, a question immediately arose relating to where the artefacts should be returned following the conclusion of the exhibition. The host state had signed contracts not only with the museums representing the collections, but also the Ministry of Culture of the country responsible for the exhibits (Ukraine at the time of the signing of the contract). However, with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, it was no longer evident to which party the Allard Pierson Museum should return the exhibits: to the museums with which they had signed the contracts, or to the country to which they had belonged at the time.

In December 2016, the District Court of Amsterdam ruled that all the exhibits should be transferred to Kiev (in the Ukraine), as ‘only sovereign states can claim cultural heritage’ and the annexation of the Crimea to Russia had been declared illegal by the United Nations and other international bodies. Ukrainian authorities welcomed the decision, but the Crimean museums soon filed an appeal. The Director of one of the museums in question, Andrey Malgin, highlighted that there are also norms of ethics and science which are pertinent to this discussion, appealing to the importance of the unity of museum collections and the fact that the artefacts in question predated by far the establishment of Ukraine as a nation state.

With the appeal process starting in March 2019, Maarten Sanders, a lawyer representing the interests of Ukraine, held that “[s]o long as the Crimean museums are subject to the authorities of the Russian Federation, and so long as the territory on which they are established is occupied by the Russian Federation, Ukraine cannot exercise its state control over the museums and the collections they hold”. As a result, the Scythian artefacts are to be kept in Kiev for as long as the current political situation continues.

Conversely, and likening this incident to Napoleon’s plundering of museums during his Italian campaigns, the Russian Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, recently threatened to cut off all museum exchanges with The Netherlands if it decides to uphold the verdict to return the remaining artefacts to Kiev despite the appeal.

Clearly, the outcome of this particular case will be finalized in court over the coming months and no doubt set an important legal precedent. Juridically speaking, there are thorny issues in need of disentangling, not least with regards to how legal texts should be interpreted when real-life events (such as military interventions) outpace changes in the law. But there are also other commitments and convictions involved in a conflict of this kind, not least ones to do with how we conceive of the relations between cultural artefacts and the members of the community which produced them, and the extent to which long-term stability of preservation may outrank the upholding of current contracts as an identifiable goal for cultural heritage and museum practitioners. Importantly, distinctly philosophical concerns of this kind have the power to influence how we conceptualize the terms and notions central to the relevant discussions in the longer term, and thereby significantly affect rulings such as these in the future.

Two philosophical concerns seem to be of particular interest in connection with this case. On the one hand, there is the matter of which party can rightly be described as the principal target of our (binding) moral relations. Who, in other words, is the primary obligor, or the party to which we chiefly owe the preservation of these artefacts? To put the question differently, who would be the main victim or injured party should the Scythian artefacts not be returned to their lawful home (whichever that may be)?

Contenders here will include not only the artefacts themselves in virtue of being objects in some sense embodied with socio-cultural meaning (thereby raising the question of whether one can have a bona fide moral obligation towards an inanimate object) and the demographic group standing in the most privileged position with regards to the relevant artefacts (again in itself a complicated notion partly for the reasons specified above), but also future generations (either of the privileged community or as global citizens) who might be deprived of direct access to the valuable artefacts, or indeed the communities who created the artefacts in the first place (prompting questions about whether the dead can truly be harmed by posthumous interventions).

Much hangs here, in other words, on one’s underlying philosophical commitments, such as in relation to the nature and workings of moral obligations. For example, one can hold different views about whether and to which extent the living can, in fact, have obligations toward the dead Should one, for example, be sympathetic to the idea that the living can have obligations to the dead (see, e.g. Wisnievski 2009), one may come to a different understanding of the best way forward than if one were to disagree with that claim (see, e.g. Ott 2012). If one instead places the emphasis on what we may owe future generations – a line often favoured in discussions of sustainable development and climate change for example – then ensuring the present security of the Scythian artefacts might prove to be the most important consideration with respect to the guaranteeing their future survival. (Of course, if we are sympathetic to the idea that we owe it to as yet unborn human beings to safeguard our common cultural heritage we cannot simultaneously reject the view that we do not have moral obligations to the dead (solely) on the grounds that they do not currently exist.)

On the other hand, there are important questions to do with how the obligations one might have towards cultural artefacts of this kind are founded on the different forms of value we tend to ascribe to them. One such question relates to whether aesthetic value should be allowed to influence our moral duties to preserve, conserve and/or restore historical artefacts? More specifically, are our moral obligations to safeguard the Scythian artefacts somehow increased or exacerbated by the fact that these objects are very beautiful? Would our urge to preserve these artefacts remain intact should they have been less aesthetically valuable?

Regardless of whether one thinks of these objects as artworks or not, they are highly prized in great part because of their aesthetic qualities. Indeed it is partly because of their beauty that the objects have been preserved in the first place, and also that they have subsequently become so sought-after by both opposing sides of the legal debate. It would seem, then, that our obligations to preserve or safeguard cultural objects are greater or amplified when their aesthetic value is higher. Is that necessarily the case?

To answer this question adequately requires reflecting carefully not only about which conception of aesthetic value is most fitting in connection with cultural heritage artefacts, but also, and more generally, the extent to which aesthetic value interacts with other forms of value in objects to affect that same object’s overall value. In a first instance, then, we need to establish an understanding of aesthetic value which is not purely based on the object’s formal appearance (see, e.g. Bell 1914; Zangwill 1999) but, rather one which incorporates relational and circumstantial elements such as factors about the object’s history and context(s). In addition, we also need a better understanding of the ways in which an artefact’s aesthetic qualities seem to influence its historical and moral value. Arguably, the Scythian artefacts’ extraordinary beauty augments their rarity which, in turn, seems to affect not only their historical value but also the extent to which their loss or destruction would represent a failing on the global community’s behalf to preserve that which ought to be safeguarded.

Whatever the final legal verdict on the Crimean artefacts, then, questions about what kinds of moral obligations are in play and how the different kinds of value manifested in them – historical, cognitive, moral and aesthetic – remain open. And it is only when we have established adequate theoretical grounds for this that we can draw conclusions about what the international community’s duties are in relation to beautiful historical artefacts more generally, and how these relate to the competing claims of cultural and geographical origin and conditions for conservation. Further, this understanding also promises to shed light on questions concerning the aims of conservation in specific cases where artefacts have sustained damage through, on the one hand, the general passing of time and, on the other, the intentional actions of specific groups of people. An extended philosophical theory of this kind could then, in turn, prove highly valuable in establishing guidelines for future legal cases of a comparable nature by helping legal entities such as museums, local communities and national governments formulate more clearly where their obligations lie, and why.


Bell, C. (1914). Art. London: Chatto & Windus.

Ott, W. (2012). Are There Duties To The Dead?, Philosophy Now,

Wisnievski, JJ. (2009). What We Owe The Dead. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 26(1): 54-70.

N. Zangwill, 1999, “Feasible Aesthetic Formalism”, Nous 33(4) 610-629.


Pictures from the exhibition “Crimea - Gold and Mysteries of the Black Sea”. , Credit: Monique Kooijmans.

About the author

Elisabeth Schellekens is Chair Professor of Aesthetics, and leads a Research Network (together with Mattias Legner, Professor of Cultural Heritage and Isak Svensson, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research) at Uppsala University centred on ‘Cultural Heritage and Ethics in Peace and Conflict (2019-20). Previously, she was Principal Investigator for the research project ‘Ethics and Aesthetics of Archaeology’ at Durham University (UK).

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.

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