ARCHES, an introduction

Our cultural heritage defines our humanity. Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, plays a quantifiable and crucial part in the health of the human species. An attack on cultural heritage in one part of the world is an attack on us all—on all of humanity. But cultural diversity is under grave threat around the globe. This wanton vandalism and destruction is not collateral damage—it’s a part of a ruthless wave of cultural and ethnic cleansing inseparable from the persecution of the communities that created these cultural gems. It’s also part of a cycle of theft and profit that finances the activities of extremists and terrorists. Any loss of cultural heritage is a loss of our common memory. It imperils our ability to learn, to build experiences, and to apply the lessons of the past to the present and the future.Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, 12 April 2016

Smarthistory + ARCHES (At-risk Cultural Heritage Education Series)

At Smarthistory, we feel strongly that an informed public is essential to ongoing efforts to protect cultural heritage. ARCHES, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, offers a mini-course on endangered heritage around the globe. Taken together, these short videos and essays (see the left navigation for all the content) can serve as a stand-alone unit, however ARCHES was also designed to help instructors integrate the subject of endangered cultural heritage into their existing curriculum. For example, a course that touches on Renaissance Venice will find the video, Saving Venice useful. In addition to the essays and videos, we’ve added 20 “backstories” to existing Smarthistory content. These offer information on how some frequently taught monuments are endangered (and in some cases, have been destroyed).

Temple of Bel, Palmyra, first and second centuries C.E. (photo: ian.plumb, CC BY 2.0)

Temple of Bel, Palmyra, first and second centuries C.E. (photo: ian.plumb, CC BY 2.0), destroyed in 2015

Culture “in crisis”?

ARCHES begins with a provocative question, is culture in crisis? This question, proposed by Dr. Stephennie Mulder and Dr. Debora Trein, reminds us that the term “crisis,” even in the wake of ISIS’ destructive activities in the Middle East, suggests that the problem is urgent—but temporary—when in reality, using this word to define present circumstance may “provide new opportunities for heritage destruction processes that were already happening and will continue happening after the ‘crisis’ is over.”

The continuous nature of the problem of endangered and destroyed cultural heritage, and the fact that it is not limited to far-away countries in political disarray, underscores the importance of educating students about historical examples (some ancient, and others as recent as Pennsylvania Station) and the legal frameworks that exist to protect important works and sites.

More than forty years ago, the art historian Albert Elsen connected the problem directly to the classroom,

In 1977, no more explosive issue confronts the art world than the protection of Art. Fair question is whether as teachers and scholars we are doing the best job of educating our students to be aware of, comprehend, and deal with the problems of art’s protection….We teach our students the engineering and iconography of a Gothic cathedrals, but not why they should be preserved.[1]

Smarthistory created ARCHES to begin to remedy this problem. The question of endangered cultural heritage is inherently an interdisciplinary one. For this reason, ARCHES includes essays from legal experts, archaeologists, art historians, and those working in not-for-profits who fight to preserve irreplaceable remnants of human history.

Looting and the loss of the archeological record

The work of the archaeologist is often central to the protection of cultural heritage. The availability of dynamite and bulldozers in the modern era has enabled widespread looting and the subsequent loss of site context, and has created a class of orphaned objects that now pervade the art market. Looting of archaeological sites is a worldwide problem that often occurs in poor countries where local populations have few other resources and in rich nations such as the United States where, for example, a civil war site, the Petersburg National Battlefield, was recently looted.

What is lost in these cases is not simply prized objects that vanish into private collections, but also the valuable information that is destroyed when the site’s sediments are disturbed and less salable materials destroyed. A video on the archaeological record examines just how much we can learn when a site is excavated with modern, scientific methods, and just how much knowledge of the human past is lost through looting (videos on a Hellenistic Turkish bronze sculpture, an ancient Cambodian temple and a site from the Sicán culture in Peru drive this point home).

Pedestal with feet fragments, Prasat Chen, Koh Ker, Cambodia, photo: © Simon Warrack, by permission, all rights reserved

Pedestal with feet fragments, Prasat Chen, Koh Ker, Cambodia, photo: © Simon Warrack, by permission, all rights reserved

An essay on a popular archaeological site in Greece, the Palace at Knossos, asks us to think about what happens to an archaeological site after the archaeologist’s work is completed and whether we should restore sites for tourists and others. We could ask a similar question about monuments destroyed during war — for example the site of Palmyra, where ancient temples and gates were destroyed by jihadists in 2015. Should these be digitally reconstructed? What is lost when we seek to erase modern acts of destruction?

The role of scholars

Ancient works of art are not only repositories for cultural identity and vehicles for spiritual transcendence, they also carry monetary value that makes them a target for those who live in poverty, for the middlemen and dealers looking to make a profit, and for collectors who long for an important object. In recent decades this dynamic has, at times, pitted the archaeologist, art historian, or cultural heritage organization, against local populations.

In the ancient African city of Djenné, archaeologists unearthed terracotta figures (many covered with mysterious welts) that became highly valued by collectors. This in turn caused widespread looting of sites (during a period of famine affecting the region) and the appearance on the market of hundreds of unprovenanced objects. Archaeologists and art historians are engaged in a debate about whether to research and publish on these objects, work that may inadvertently increase their market value, and thereby encourage more looting and the inevitable loss of archaeological information.

Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The role of museums

We are still living with the ramifications of centuries of colonial domination. Major museums, especially those in the West, hold treasures obtained through conquest, revolution, colonial occupation, and the advantages of great wealth. Further, art museums have traditionally emphasized the aesthetic qualities of the object, often presenting a prized object alone in an illuminated transparent box. This display strategy hides not only the object’s original use — in a masquerade in West Africa, in a Buddhist temple, or on a church altar — but also has the effect of secularizing what was once held as sacred. This tension between the secular values of the encyclopedic museum (those museums with global collections often obtained through colonial ventures or through the donation of unprovenanced objects) which seeks to understand humanity across time and place, and the potentially more nationalistic sentiments of people who were colonized, is regularly played out in debates between archaeologists, museum directors, curators, and local populations. The most famous case-in-point are the Parthenon sculptures, which were taken from the Acropolis in Athens by a British nobleman in the early 19th century.

This is, however, a complex discussion. In some cases, the cultures that created the objects no longer exist; in other instances, efforts to link objects to traditions that do endure have been criticized as too far-reaching. Some also argue that the values of commonality—of a shared universal heritage—are more important than national claims especially if they are made by governments sullied by political agendas. Clearly, this is not a debate for those looking for a well-defined moral high ground. If, on the other hand, we are looking for a forum in which to examine how we define identity, and upon what we can base reciprocal cultural respect, then cultural heritage offers enormous advantages.

Euphronios, Sarpedon Krater, (signed by Euxitheos as potter and Euphronios as painter), c. 515 B.C.E., red-figure terracotta, 55.1 cm diameter (National Museum Cerite, Cerveteri, Italy)

Euphronios, Sarpedon Krater, (signed by Euxitheos as potter and Euphronios as painter), c. 515 B.C.E., red-figure terracotta, 55.1 cm diameter (National Museum Cerite, Cerveteri, Italy)

The story of the Euphronios Krater is a case in point. The krater, a large ancient Greek punch bowl, was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and became one of their most celebrated objects, not only because of the pot’s recordbreaking price, but because of its exceptional painting. The krater is now in a small regional museum in Italy, having been returned after it was discovered that the vase was likely looted from an ancient Etruscan tomb north of Rome. Questions linger about The Metropolitan’s acquisition and its willingness to overlook gaps in the pot’s provenance.

Art in times of war

Since antiquity, works of art have suffered during times of war. In the late 18th and early 19th century, as Napoleon conquered much of Europe, his troops looted thousands of works of art and shipped the most prized examples to Paris for Napoleon’s museum (which would later become the Louvre Museum). Though many were returned, others remain in the collection of the Louvre to this day. Napoleon also suppressed churches and monasteries across the parts of Europe he conquered and as a result, works of art made to inspire religious devotion (altarpieces, reliquaries, etc.) entered the art market in vast numbers, and — due to the saturation of the market — many remained unsold, and were damaged over time in storerooms, or during transportation. Many of these works made their way into European and American museums. It’s important to remember that there are often fascinating stories behind how works of art made their way to museums—stories not often revealed by a museum label.

The twentieth century too, saw a period of unprecedented upheaval for works of art during World War II. After decades of work by heirs and lawyers, many works of art have been returned to the (usually Jewish) families from which they were illegally confiscated by the Nazis, but thousands remain in museum storerooms. Just recently the Louvre opened an exhibition of 100 works of art looted by the Nazis in the hope that the rightful heirs might come forward (more than 1700 works remain in the Louvre that were confiscated by the Nazis, and many museums have offices devoted to researching the provenance of works of art, and returning confiscated works to the rightful owners).

The lasting damage to art during times of war can not be overestimated. Just a few years ago, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu during a period of civil war, and thanks to the hard work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (and other libraries), they are being digitized so that future generations can learn from them.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912, oil on panel, 32 × 39.8 cm (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912, oil on panel, 32 × 39.8 cm (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

What we lose when we uproot works of art

The dislocation of works of art — whether due to colonial practices, looting, or wartime activities — raises the difficult question of where works of art belong. Do they belong in their place of origin, or do they belong in universal museums (like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum, or the Louvre) where they can be seen in an international context by tens of millions of tourists and students?

We worry about how much is lost when work is removed from the places and people they were made for — not just lost knowledge about the work of art, but also, in many cases, the tremendous loss suffered by those whose art has made its way into Western museums (usually from indigenous source communities). The case of an image of Paikea, a Māori ancestor, that was acquired in 1908 by the American Museum of Natural History is a good example. Paikea was placed on a storage shelf until 2013 when a group of Paikea’s descendants visited the museum to reconnect with this ancestor figure.

It is important to remember that for cultures throughout history and across the globe, images are not inanimate and powerless, rather they maintain an intimate connection to what they represent — whether that is an ancestor, an image of a deity, or a loved one. In the West, we would do well to remember the power and efficacy of images.


ARCHES was created to raise public awareness. We hope you will use and share these resources. We all need to do our part and to remember that it is not only well-known sites that are endangered, but also countless lesser-known places and objects that need our protection.


ARCHES was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily express those of the National Endowment for the Humanities