As the war unfolds, this Boston Public Library curator helps preserve Ukraine’s cultural treasures
As of March 30, UNESCO had confirmed at least 53 damaged cultural sites in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, NPR reported. the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (Google will translate the website from Ukrainian to English) had recorded 135 acts of violence against such sites.
Deliberately destroying cultural heritage sites or assets is much more than collateral damage: it constitutes war crime.
“By erasing people’s identities, you’re able to control them more and control the narrative,” said Kristin Parker, senior curator and head of arts at Boston Public Library. “In wartime, it’s a tactic.”
Parker is a lead trainer in an international volunteer network of what she calls “Cultural Heritage First Responders” organized by the International Center for Studies for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.
Her volunteer work with the network is not part of her job at the Boston Public Library.
Parker’s fascination with rescuing cultural property stems from her work as a curator and growing up in Needham in a military family. “My dad was a soldier, deployed in Vietnam,” she said. ‘When I learned how’monuments men‘ recovered from wartime art, I thought, ‘Can I put my knowledge of war and heritage together?’ In 2016 she trained with ICCROM and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC
“It’s about crisis communication and organizing teams,” she said. “We have built an extraordinary network. It’s about building relationships that transcend politics.
Parker has since focused his efforts on the impact of cultural loss to Syrians in war-torn Aleppoand the threat to Armenian cultural heritage raised by Azerbaijan. Lately, she has been spending her free time following the situation in Ukraine and giving whatever support she can to librarians, museum professionals, archivists and others who are scrambling to backup art and other artifacts under bombardment. Museum employees move important works to bunkers. Citizens are sandbag statues.
Ukraine, which has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is a treasure trove of cultural treasures. But it’s the story is a litany of invasions, with occupiers such as the Russian Empire, the Polish Empire, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Its national identity was forged against a background of colonial erasure. As the war unfolds, the threat to the material culture that defines what it means to be Ukrainian is dire.
Working with the Smithsonian’s First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis program, Parker is monitoring the situation through Ihor Poshyvailo, director general of the Maidan Museum in Kyiv, also known as Celestial Hundred Heroes National Memorial Complex – Dignity Revolution Museum. Founded following the 2014 uprising which forced the ousting of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, the museum encourages and documents the history of Ukrainians’ struggle for national and personal freedom.
Poshyvailo is boots in the field for the First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis program in Ukraine. Together with Parker, he is part of an international first aid network at cultural heritage sites. He regularly publishes updates on damage to Ukrainian cultural property on Facebook. He and other Ukrainians created the Heritage Emergency Response Initiativea non-governmental organization that supports the preservation of Ukrainian culture.
Volunteers outside Ukraine, like Parker, implement the support systems.
“We ask, do they need supplies, do they need salaries?” said Parker. “We organize supplies from Poland. We follow aerial documentation to immediately track damage. We’ve activated Interpol, let them know looting is a possibility. Things can leave the country.
The Heritage Emergency Response Initiative provides facilities with needs assessment forms, but has not yet set up a donation page for staff salaries, prioritizing the physical needs of the site instead. Useful supplies include archival packing materials, polythene bags and wraps, cardboard boxes, string, and tape.
Technology and social media have made it easier for the Parker team to keep up with new developments. Facebook posts from Poshyvailo and the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, as well as Twitter posts from LeBerre, keep the world informed of the destruction.
These files are a source of evidence in the event that suspected war criminals are brought before an international tribunal.
“The Hague Convention [of 1954] is intended to protect wartime heritage, but it is intended to be used when the dust settles as a way to deal with war crimes generally in court,” Parker said. “For something to be considered a war crime, it must be determined whether it was targeted or incidental.”
“Bellingcat technicians can analyze images and videos for authenticity and authenticate posts that appear online,” Parker said.
Other cultural workers have feverishly preserved Ukrainian digital archives. In February, Anna E. Kijas, director of Lilly Music Library at Tufts University, co-founded Safeguarding Ukrainian cultural heritage online (SUCHO).
“I was preparing for a conference on the music library after the invasion, and I thought, ‘What could a group of music librarians do to preserve what’s available digitally?'” said Kijas, whose Voluntary work is also independent of his work.
Kijas spread the word on Twitter and over 1,000 people volunteered in the first week. There are currently approximately 20 volunteers with SUCHO in the Boston area.
“Whether it’s text and images on a small library’s website or an entire museum collection online, files rely on servers, which are physical equipment that can be damaged or destroyed. “, said Kijas.
The SUCHO team scours the websites of Ukrainian cultural institutions, retrieves data to place it in secure storage on the Internet Archivewhich Kijas describes as “a huge public library where other institutions have digitized music and books for other people to enjoy”.
These are the easily downloadable files. According to Kijas, the larger ones are condensed and uploaded to secure storage offered by Amazon Web Services. So far, she said, SUCHO has stored about 15,000 pages of musical scores, rare manuscripts and images of works of art in the Internet Archive, and nearly 15 terabytes of data.
“If Ukrainian institutions reopen and their servers are still working and we never need to access that content,” Kijas said, “that’s not a bad thing.”
What matters is that the content survives. This is important not only for those who remain in Ukraine at the end of the war, but also for Ukrainians who have fled. Over 4 million Ukrainians are now refugees.
Parker indicates Andras Riedlmayer, who retired last year from his position as bibliographer of Islamic art and architecture at the Harvard Fine Arts Library, by personal inspiration. He has documented the destruction of heritage in Bosnia by Serbian nationalists, including damage to mosques, churches, books and property records, and testified in nine international trials on the erasure of cultural artifacts in Balkans.
“I was crossing Bosnia eight or nine years after the war. There were still refugees living in tents,” Riedlmayer said. “The first thing they rebuilt were schools and places of worship. The things that gave them cultural security and a sense of the future.
“People see heritage as their sign of guidance after being disoriented after the war crisis,” said Parker, who conducts independent research with the Ronin Institute on the role cultural heritage plays in helping to refugees. The day after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, Parker posted on the Ronin Institute Blog.
“I am often asked: ‘How is it possible to think of artefacts, monuments or works of art when human lives are at stake?’ Of course, human lives come first,” she wrote. “We also have to give people a reason to live.”