By Vernon Rapley
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Culture in Crisis programme is committed to protecting the world's cultural heritage and supporting communities that suffer cultural loss whether through conflict, criminal acts or natural disaster. The programme embraces a cross-disciplinary approach by providing a forum for sharing information, inspiring and supporting action and raising public awareness.
The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is an international organisation with collections from around the globe. So, in early 2015, when we saw the terrible destruction of historic sites in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, we wanted to step up and do something about it. From the very beginning, it was essential for us to contribute in a way that was genuinely needed whilst also playing to our strengths. We recognised the amazing work of other museums, charities and organisations and needed to ensure that we neither competed for the limited funds available nor duplicated their work.
The Culture in Crisis programme was born when our former director, Dr Martin Roth, introduced me to Dr Stefan Simon, then director of the Yale University Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. Stefan is a conservation scientist, and I had been the head of the Art & Antiques Unit at New Scotland Yard before I joined the V&A in 2010. Our different experiences and connections created a solid foundation, but we needed to gain a better understanding and involve more people. Together we planned an inaugural conference at the V&A, held under the patronage of UNESCO in April 2015. We succeeded in bringing together delegates from around the world with a wealth of experience and knowledge. The conference ended with delegates signing a statement of intent known as The London Declaration.
The recommendations of the London Declaration have been the backbone of the V&A’s Culture in Crisis Programme for the last seven years:
• We are committed to protecting the world's cultural heritage and supporting communities that suffer cultural loss, whether through conflict, criminal acts or natural disaster.
• We bring together those with a shared interest in protecting cultural heritage, providing a forum for, sharing information, inspiring and supporting action and raising public awareness.
• We strive to understand the impact of cultural heritage loss on communities and the contrasting positive role its preservation can have in rebuilding.
• We aim to encourage a cross-disciplinary approach, raising public awareness and working with organisations from a variety of backgrounds to take a holistic approach to the protection of heritage in all its forms.
If further impetus for the programme was needed, it sadly came soon after the first conference, with the appalling murder of Kaled-a-Asaad and the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, in Palmyra. The director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said of Mr Asaad, "They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra… his work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists…They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history." His commitment and bravery have been an inspiration to the Culture in Crisis team.
Our London conference was followed by major international conferences in:
• New Haven (USA): under the patronage of UNESCO we hosted a satellite event to the UN Global Colloquium of University Presidents, held at Yale University. This conference focused on the ongoing destruction and loss of cultural heritage in North Africa and the Middle East. It also explored the impact of an exodus of people and talent from the region, potentially resulting in the loss of cultural knowledge as well as local arts and crafts.
• Kigali (Rwanda): exploring the benefits of both cultural heritage and wildlife conservation practices within the post-conflict recovery of a nation. Looking at the social and economic benefits of these activities, the output of this conference was the creation of a road map to recovery, which could be applied within more contemporaneous conflict zones.
• Pretoria (South Africa): we partnered with Yale's Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, to convene a major international conference in collaboration with University of Pretoria, South Africa. The event had a unique focus on the benefits of both wildlife and heritage conservation. The conference served to highlight the value of these two parallel branches of conservation, demonstrating that through their adoption, successful sustainable development on the national and international level can be achieved.
Accessibility and inclusion are vital to the success of the Culture in Crisis programme; we make every effort to remove barriers and encourage active participation from the widest possible audience. Our events are free of charge, and whenever possible they are recorded and made available on our website.
Our public programme really kicked off when we were joined in 2016 by Laura Searson (née Jones). She has been responsible for hosting dozens of events. Starting off with just a few people in a room, she has built a vast network spanning the globe. Hundreds of people now attend our events in real life and virtually, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and opportunities to share with each other.
We have created two podcast series. The first, Preservation by Design, is an eight-part podcast exploring designed solutions to threats posed to our cultural heritage. It draws from a wide spectrum of different practitioners and the designed systems they are using. We look at the broader ecosystem of preservation efforts which are taking place around the globe. From the architectural design of cities to the formation of military units specifically responsible for protecting heritage in conflict zones; from cutting edge technologies for tracing looted antiquities to projects merging ancient craft and modern design processes.
The second series, Fighting the Illicit Trade, explores everything from the looting of archaeological sites to the auctioning of stolen antiquities and the long and complex chain of criminal activity which connects the illicit trade of cultural property as it stretches through many hands and numerous countries. It brings together international experts working to prevent the illegal trade of cultural goods, each person fighting a battle to rescue cultural heritage at a different stage of its underground journey. We look at the actions taken at the source, through transit and upon arrival at its destination.
In December 2019, we identified a genuine need for those engaged in cultural heritage preservation projects to understand more about what others were doing. In direct response, the V&A launched the Culture in Crisis Portal with the support of national and international partners. It has rapidly grown to become the world’s largest and most accessible database of heritage protection projects. It is completely free to use and provides an invaluable insight into global efforts to protect and preserve endangered heritage around the world. The Portal is used to learn from one another, share experiences and work more collaboratively to protect the world’s cultural heritage. It connects users from 189 countries, spanning six continents, with more than 500 organisations and 1,000 heritage protection projects. The Portal is easily accessed here.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, the Culture in Crisis programme sought ways to operate differently and explore the opportunities created by changes in the way people were working. One of the most successful projects during this period was a series of webinars held under the banner of Culture in Crisis Conversations. To deliver these the V&A’s Culture in Crisis team partnered with The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the British Council. The series examined how the experiences of recent years had encouraged cultural organisations across the globe to adapt and transform in the face of global challenges and how communities had embraced new opportunities and looked to build a future that was more sustainable, equitable and ecological.
The first series, held in 2020-2021, consisted of five sessions; each convened a panel to discuss strategic subjects including sustainability, development and the role of digital technologies. Throughout the series we invited our audience to join the discussion online and contribute questions, both beforehand and during the interactive sessions. The workshops developed organically, stimulated debate, forged new connections and identified recommendations for future activities.
The partnership succeeded in bringing a hugely diverse audience into the conversation, albeit virtually! Special effort was made to not only encourage young people to join the discussions but to actively participate, including in the role of youth panellist. Many of these young people have become regular attendees and contributors to the wider programme.
The success of the first series inspired the same partnership to create a second series, Global Heritage Perspectives, examining how the experiences of recent years have encouraged cultural organisations across the globe to adapt and transform in the face of global challenges and new opportunities. Global Heritage Perspectives explored innovative approaches to cultural heritage management and stewardship, to understand and reflect on how responses to crises have been shaped over the last year. In this series we discover novel strategies that respond to crisis at scale and explore the degree to which cultural heritage can be a route to addressing environmental, economic and social issues around the world. We hope to produce further Culture in Crisis Conversations. Both series are available to watch on our website, together with the live drawings that were undertaken during each of the discussions.
We are immensely proud of what Culture in Crisis has achieved since 2015. We are inspired each day by the amazing people we meet and the resilient communities they serve, but our work is far from over!
If you would like to know more, please visit us here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/culture-in-crisis/ and join our mailing list which gives you advanced notice of events and conferences by emailing us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vernon Rapley is the director of cultural heritage protection and security at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London, a special advisor for the Cultural Heritage Protection Fund, a board member of the ICOM International Council for Museum Security and a member of National Police Chiefs’ Council, Heritage & Cultural Property Crime Working Group. (Photo by Peter Kelleher, V&A)
(Read the article and see all the images and links in the June-July 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 90, p. 16-20)