Safe Havens

by wcarruthers

What does it mean to be ‘safe’, and what does it mean to be ‘endangered’? Who or what defines these terms, and who or what can these categories be used to characterise? On 2–3 December 2016, a conference entitled “Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage” took place in Abu Dhabi, organised jointly by the governments of France and the United Arab Emirates, and held under the patronage of UNESCO. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was in attendance, as was French President François Hollande and the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova; many other dignitaries joined them. The (mostly male, and distinctly elite) diplomatic spectacle was a sight to behold.

The pronouncements emanating from the conference’s podium were also attention-grabbing. Al Nahyan stated that “the destruction of heritage sites by terrorist groups, and illicit trafficking by groups that aim to obliterate the international heritage of humanity, are rejected by all God-given religions and human nature”. Not to be outdone, Hollande, discussing the policies put forward at the conference, announced that “this work is part of the battle led by France and the UAE against obscurantism, for openness and culture”. As part of this “battle”, the conference, drawing on a protocol—and now law—active in the United States since 2015, proposed setting up a global network of ‘safe havens’ to protect cultural property endangered by terrorism and armed conflict. It also proposed an international fund to help the financing of initiatives connected to this work. As The Art Newspaper reported, “France has started the fund off with $30m, the UAE has added $15m, and it is expected that public and private contributions will take it to at least $100m”.

Through these announcements, the conference’s attendees suggested that it is the very act of giving property and capital the ability to circulate freely that helps to define what counts as safe and what counts as endangered. Simultaneously, these same announcements suggest that the definition of these terms depends on the sort of language we use to constitute and propel this circulatory process. Adhering to the received tenets of post-1989 political-economy, it seems that it is not only the ability to move freely, but also the ability to move liberally—without noticeable prodding by others and without apparent bother from regulatory or legislative obstacles—that defines the status and existence of, in this instance, cultural objects. If governments and international agencies are able to establish the conditions within which this circulation can take place, it almost seems as if artefacts will find their way to safe havens themselves.

In many ways, this situation would seem to be ideal. Indeed, as some people apparently perceive it, these objects—beyond the terrorists, illicit traffickers and collectors who deal in and purchase looted artefacts—possess no real human connections. On 14 December, less than two weeks after the Abu Dhabi conference concluded, an exhibition entitled “Eternal Sites” opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. In collaboration with the Louvre and again under the patronage of UNESCO and its “#Unite4Heritage” campaign, the exhibition showcased the work of Iconem, a Parisian “start-up” which, according to its Twitter bio, is in the business of “saving #WorldHeritage with disruptive technologies”. Iconem’s website—the organisation’s lower-case, acronym-like name, which does not actually seem to stand for anything bar a façade of intergovernmentality—expands on this point further, stating that the start-up’s


ambition is to preserve the knowledge of threatened heritage using digital advances. Thanks to our ground surveys and our visual processing algorithms, we are able to produce real digital doubles of archaeological remains or expanses. We hence offer the scientific community and the public an innovative means of exploring famous places of world heritage.


Moving beyond the technological determinism present in this paragraph, not to mention the obvious question relating to how any of these “doubles” is more “real” than any other sort of reproduction, Iconem’s work gels perfectly with the Abu Dhabi declaration. Innovation, algorithms, disruptive technologies; all these things, we have been repeatedly informed, are what help goods, property, and capital to move faster and easier, without the bothersome need for humanity to get in the way. And Iconem’s “digital doubles” only go to prove this point. Accompanying the “Eternal Sites” website, a YouTube video illustrates the majority of the ‘doubled’ locations as free of people; places—amongst them Palmyra and the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus—quite literally moving through the time and space of the internet without, in the majority of cases, any inhabitants attached to them. As Michael Press has shown, this sort of erasure is unsettling, to say the least. The sites might be ‘safe’ (at least digitally), but the people who live in and around them certainly are not; unless, of course, those people cease to exist in the digital form that the sites now take. Daesh has recently moved back into Palmyra, so perhaps these people will cease to exist in living form, too, in which case the de-humanised reconstructions will take on a whole new sort of accuracy.

We have, in fact, been close to this sort of situation before, although without much of the added morbidity. UNESCO at least partially built the authority of its 1972 World Heritage Convention on the work conducted during the 1960s and 1970s as part of its International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. The Campaign, whose most famous acts remain the transfer of the temples at Abu Simbel and Philae to locations above the floodwaters of the Aswan High Dam, was itself dependent on a trust fund, and partially predicated on the ability of monuments and excavated objects to move to places—and countries—other than where archaeologists excavated them. The construction of the High Dam—as well as being responsible for the deaths of five hundred labourers—was also dependent on the movement of an entire, geopolitically divided population away from monuments and archaeological remains, which were consequently recorded (as was the norm) as free from human contact. A separate, Ford Foundation-funded ethnological campaign surveyed Egyptian Nubians before they were relocated northwards (see Hopkins and Mehanna 2010). Yet the Sudanese Nubians, bar a census and a statistical survey predicated on making their own emigration southwards as efficient as possible (see Dafalla 1975), apparently warranted less effort. The end result of this process, as Lucia Allais has noted, enabled UNESCO to represent itself as having created and set into circulation new and logical “patterns of mobility for knowledge, people, and capital” (2012, 208) at a remove from the geopolitics of the High Dam itself.

The problem here is that it takes an enormous suspension of disbelief to concur not only that these patterns worked as easily and apolitically as UNESCO likes to purport, but also that these patterns were not instead dependent on human interactions, choices, and asymmetries throughout their effective lifespan. All people in Nubia were equal, but some people—archaeologists, architects and engineers amongst them—seemed to be more equal than others. This summer, I came across a display panel in the National Museum in Warsaw detailing how the institution “acquired 67 wall paintings”, amongst various other objects from Nubia. The rest of the artefacts from Polish work during the Nubian campaign, the panel informs us, “found their way to the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum”. But for anything to ‘find its way’ requires conversations between archaeologists and government officials and a division of excavated artefacts to be decided on and take place. Giving the Polish objects agency—a bit like a freewheeling object on its way to a safe haven—removes the reality that this agency was produced by human beings making choices, symmetrical or otherwise.


And that is why the Nubian campaign—itself launched in a glare of publicity—is so relevant to the Abu Dhabi conference and its aftermath. Just as it takes a suspension of disbelief to imagine that what rests behind the patterns created by the Nubian work did not involve people making choices with and about other people, so it takes a suspension of disbelief to give credence to the idea that the network of safe havens that the Abu Dhabi conference proposed can be produced without massive diplomatic and legislative pressure. Despite appearances, cultural property and finance capital are able to move about as smoothly as Iconem’s reconstructions, which is to say that they can’t move freely at all; at least not without the assistance of partner governments and—as in the case of the “Eternal Sites” exhibition—people involved with Google Arts and Culture, the Leon Levy Foundation, Bank of America, LVMH, Fondation Total, Caisse des Dépôts, the American Funds of the Louvre, and something called the Kheops Funds for Archaeology.

There are difficult questions at stake here. Morag Kersel (in press, 2016, 14) has discussed the positives and negatives of cultural property safe havens in detail, also noting that “there is no doubt that landscapes, museums, and artifacts across the Middle East face ongoing threats”. No one would deny that things—and that is what cultural property constitutes before, as in this case, it is excavated—are threatened, even as it is the act of digging, whether archaeological excavation or looting, that creates the cultural property on which this threat is enacted. What I would like to know, though, is how the particular assemblage of institutions, objects, capital and people represented not only by the Iconem exhibition but also by the Abu Dhabi conference could come together now. How is it possible to suggest the efficacy of digital preservation and the notion of the cultural property “safe haven” at the same time as other immanent safe havens—ones, you will not be surprised to read, relating to people—have so obviously failed to come into being? Similarly, I’d like to clarify what the ethical implications of this situation might be, and where the assemblage of resources pulled together in Paris and Abu Dhabi might therefore be best placed to work. Sad to say, I have a feeling that it is not necessarily at the Grand Palais.

The evening that “Eternal Sites” opened, the great and the good gathered at the show. François Hollande (who, in Abu Dhabi, had so memorably used the rhetoric of warfare) described the exhibition as “a militant act”. To say the least, it was an odd turn of phrase given that, at exactly the same time in Aleppo (part of which is itself a World Heritage site), the devastated city’s remaining inhabitants—those who had neither fled nor been killed—were waiting for a final act of warfare to finish unfolding as the Assad regime’s (Russian-backed) forces closed in. At best, reports were desperate. At worst, they involved summary executions and Syrians recording, online, what they feared would be their final moments. Safe havens were sorely lacking, even as organisations like the International Red Cross called for controlled evacuations to take place and pressure renewed for foreign states to undertake the sort of positive, humanitarian interventions that they had so noticeably failed to enact as the Syrian conflict erupted and the refugee crisis worsened.

And here lies the final, grim irony. By appropriating the terminology of warfare, creating “safe havens” for cultural property and recording sites like Palmyra with—in all seriousness—technology such as drones, we not only create a dubious moral equivalence between sites, objects, and the people who live in and around them. By dehumanising representations of such places, we also take that equivalence away at the same time as we dehumanise the refugees who we—in the European Union and the United States, but also, arguably, in Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates—have collectively failed to assist. Cultural property can now move more freely—and, as a commodity, is often valued more highly—than people, whether in terms of the sort of initiative announced in Abu Dhabi or in terms of the art market that helps to fuel looting. As the world turns to populism and demagoguery, racism and fear, we let some goods keep on moving and classify other, human ‘goods’ as not good at all. As we do so, we need to think about what our priorities are. What is the point of things without people?

With thanks to Morag Kersel for permission to cite her forthcoming article.


Allais, Lucia. 2012. “The Design of the Nubian Desert: Monuments, Mobility, and the Space of Global Culture”. In: Aggregate collective (eds) Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 179-215.

Dafalla, Hassan. 1975. The Nubian Exodus. London: C Hurst & Company.

Hopkins, Nicholas, and Sohair Mehanna (eds). 2010. Nubian Encounters: The Story of the Nubian Ethnological Survey 1961-1964. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Kersel, Morag. In press (2016). “Acquisition Apologetics: A Case for Saving the Past for the Future?” Brown Journal of World Affairs 23 (1).