Saturday, January 14, 2012

Securing Heritage in Crisis Situations: Some Thoughts on the Egyptian Scientific Institute and Sri Lanka's Volunteer Heritage Police

As with the Cairo Museum, security cameras, fences, and personnel were apparently not enough to protect the Egyptian Scientific Institute:

hese treasures are guarded by security personnel 24 hours a day, along with surveillance cameras positioned throughout the library’s interior and exterior. An advanced system can extinguish fire in seconds, and an electric fence lines the premises.

Here's more evidence, if it were needed, that normal security systems are not designed to deal with the kinds of security challenges posed by crisis situations.

The lesson should be clear: cultural authorities everywhere should be thinking now about worst-case scenarios and developing contingency plans. The starting point might well be to take advantage of the institution's own employees. That is a lesson the late Donny George might have taught (he and a few other colleagues returned when they heard about the looting of the Iraq Museum and spent several days holding the fort before the Americans finally showed up). It is somewhat surprising to learn that 2300 people work for the Egyptian Scientific Institute. That is a large crew, and it is too bad that some of them were not conscripted to form a human chain around the Institute, as Egyptian citizens did at the Cairo Museum.

But it is the country's citizens themselves who could and should provide the primary resource to be called upon during emergencies to protect their nation's heritage. And not just emergencies: Sri Lanka's National Heritage Ministry, for instance, is setting up a volunteer force to assist the police in guarding monuments against antiquities looters. Developing non-governmental organizations devoted to protecting heritage is something that should be high on the agenda of foundations, international organizations, and cultural officials in-country.