Recent news stories from Iraq, Syria and Egypt, to name but a few embattled countries, have brought this question to the forefront of our minds. The recent destruction of Nimrod has raised howls of despair around the world. The ancient city south of Mosul has reportedly been bulldozed to the ground by Isis forces.
The stories have been well covered in the pages of The Guardian. “The birthplace of human civilisation … is being destroyed”, said Kino Gabriel, a leader of the Syriac Military Council – a Christian militia – in a telephone interview with the Guardian. What many are mourning here is not only the loss of life and property, but also the attempt to erase all evidence of a particular civilisation and culture. And as Gabriel claimed in his interview for the Guardian “The loss is the loss of the entire world”.
Mardean Isaac, an Assyrian writer and member of ‘A Demand for Action’, an organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of Assyrians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq, claimed that “while the Islamic State is ethnically cleansing the contemporary Assyrian populations of Iraq and Syria, they are also conducting a simultaneous war on their ancient history and the right of future generations of all ethnicities and religions to the material memory of their ancestors”.
Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, said she was deeply shocked at the footage showing the destruction and has asked the president of the UN Security Council to convene an emergency meeting “on the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage as an integral element for the country’s security”. Here in the UK, British Museum staff have said “we naturally deplore all such acts of vandalism and destruction of cultural heritage, and continue to monitor the situation to the best of our ability”.
It is impossible not to share in this general anguish and profound sense of loss. Any loss of important cultural artefacts in any region of the world is a blow to our collective understanding of our humanity. The destruction of a group’s ‘history’ is deeply ‘uncivilised’ and conjures up thoughts of tyranny and ethnic cleansing. Yet the question should make us pause and think: could this happen here?
This is not to say we are about to become embroiled in civil war and destruction, but are we facing something far more insidious and potentially dangerous? It may seem absurd and in bad taste to raise such a point on the back of such horror stories from the Middle East, but many influential bodies in the comparatively wealthy UK are expressing concern about the plight of our libraries, museums, galleries, heritage sites and archive offices in our current times of apparent ‘austerity’.
For some years now, the Museums Association has been expressing concern about losses in the museum sector. The survey conducted in the summer of 2014 found that one in ten respondents had considered selling parts of their collections, more than half of responding museums had experienced a cut to their overall income (the highest percentage to report such cuts since a survey in 2011), many were being forced to look at alternative funding streams, and most had been forced to cut full-time staff.
At most risk are those museums and galleries under the control of hard-pressed local authorities. Provincial museums are suffering, but so too are the major metropolitan centres. There is talk more and more of putting services out to tender, to trusts, to groups of volunteers, splitting organisations as big and important as English Heritage (which has come into effect this month), all with the aim of reducing costs, which will inevitably lead to loss of services.
What has gone out of the window is any care for ‘sustainability’. And ironically, we are witnessing in this current turmoil, the cracking of many cultural institutions created by wealthy philanthropists in the nineteenth century. Archaeological, architectural and historical bodies around the country are feeling the strain of maintaining properties, collections and staff. Whole libraries are being jettisoned, collections mothballed, curating and cataloguing skills being lost.
Many take comfort in the so-called ‘digital revolution’ and claim that images will make up for loss of books, archives and touchable cultural artefacts. But what will future generations say about the current losses? And what will tourists of the future have to visit? Should we not be taking stock of what we are bothering to preserve and what we are allowing to slip away unnoticed? Indigenous cultures reveal the problems of those whose past has been systematically attacked over many years. What we are suffering are the problems associated with complacency, a sense of western superiority, and a feeling that our past is not under the threats that are so obviously apparent in other parts of the world.
Helen Jennings has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).