How do we protect important cultural heritage collections in the event of crisis and conflict? Susanna Pettersson, General Director, Nationalmuseum, writes about the importance of having good preparedness and of acting, not just investigating and thinking.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the issue of our relationship with our cultural heritage. In the first weeks and months of the war, the grave threat to archaeological sites, churches, libraries, museums and monuments became apparent. Hundreds of cultural heritage sites have been bombed, burned and destroyed. When our culture burns, part of our identity burns with it, affecting us deeply.
Back in April, UNESCO set up the International Emergency Group for Museums in Ukraine. The group supports the cultural heritage work of Ukrainian museums by offering legal, scientific and technical assistance with protecting collections in situ, by promoting cooperation between relevant players, and by helping to plan the extensive reconstruction programme. As the preamble to the 1954 Hague Convention makes clear, “any damage to cultural property, irrespective of the people it belongs to, is a damage to the cultural heritage of all humanity”.
Nationalmuseum is the Swedish representative on the group, which consists of 13 directors from world-leading art museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In addition, the Swedish National Heritage Board, the Council of the Swedish National Museums, the Swedish Museums Association and other players in the Swedish museums sector are maintaining constant dialogue with a view to supporting museums in Ukraine.
In the past, Sweden has managed to stay out of wars and conflicts, but the Ukraine war has changed all that. As a result, we have to review cultural heritage issues in light of the new geopolitical perspective. The emergency preparedness work led by the Swedish National Heritage Board matters more than ever.
Swedish museums manage collections of great national and international value. Nationalmuseum, for instance, founded in 1792, manages over 700,000 pieces of art and design dating from the 16th century onward. Nationalmuseum is one of Europe’s oldest art museums and plays a crucial role in collecting, managing, communicating, exhibiting and researching, not just in Sweden but in an international context. When we talk about the Nationalmuseum collections, we are talking about world-class art: the world’s biggest collection of European miniature portraits, the largest collection of French art outside France, unique works by Rembrandt and other European old masters, and iconic works central to the history of Swedish art and design. Works that absolutely must not be lost.
As a nation, Sweden must ensure that collections such as those of Nationalmuseum are protected and kept in suitable locations that meet the highest security standards, especially in light of the new geopolitical situation. This means, for example, that storage facilities should not be sited in high-risk strategic locations, nor in locations vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as rising water levels, heavy downpours or heatwaves.
There are two parallel considerations. If rapid evacuation is required in the face of threat or conflict, an established removal plan will be followed. In this case, some very hard decisions on prioritisation will have to be made in a short space of time. If it is necessary in the long term to evacuate collections from unsuitable premises to a new location, we have to consider the need for investment.
A survey on the protection of cultural heritage authored by Mattias Legnér, Professor in Conservation at Uppsala university, in 2022 showed a need to focus on emergency preparedness. The report was commissioned by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the Swedish National Heritage Board to provide a common starting point for ongoing efforts to protect cultural heritage in the event of war, actual or threatened. One conclusion of the report was that we should examine the potential removal needs of collection institutions in case of war, and how to improve the institutions’ preparedness in general. There is also a need to review Swedish laws and regulations on removal and destruction, and to draw up regulations on the removal of collections.
A burning question for cultural heritage organisations is how to secure the future of valuable collections. Put bluntly, this means we cannot simply examine, discuss and ponder. We must take action. There is an outright need for proper storage facilities and bombproof shelters. Updated protective legislation is also sorely needed. This is not something that can be put off.
Currently, some of Sweden’s unique cultural heritage is stored in unsuitable facilities, and the legislation intended to protect this heritage is out of date. The war in Ukraine has thrown into sharp focus the need for action to protect our cultural assets. In a wider international context, Sweden plays a leading role in the area of cultural heritage and should show the way forward by adopting proactive measures. Canny, well-considered investment in and for culture will help build our future.
//Susanna Pettersson, Director General, Nationalmuseum