Protecting heritage amidst an unfolding crisis

May 6, 2015

Course on First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis comes to a close on 30 April in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A group of 20 cultural heritage professionals – archaeologists, archivists, and architects – arrived on the scene to assess the damage to a World Heritage Site. Tensions between the two countries that border the site had escalated into a violent protest and a bomb blast had gone off directly next to the historic structure. Artifacts of all kinds were scattered under rubble and ash.

These professionals needed to negotiate with the military commander in charge of securing the site, and work in tandem with the medical professionals who were still clearing injured people from the area. After dividing the work, the “cultural first aiders” had to immediately take inventory of the found objects, document, and create a temporary storage plan, all under pressure that forecasted rains might further damage, and potentially flood, the site.

This setting is actually not the scene from current events, and the World Heritage Site is not one of the ones recently affected by the disasters seen in Iraq, Mali, and even most recently, Nepal. These cultural first-aiders were actually responding to a hypothetical scenario given to them at the culmination of the First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crises (FAC) training, held at Fort Markenbinnen, outside Amsterdam, Netherlands. Under the guidance of several trainers from the partnership of three cultural organizations: ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, and the Smithsonian Institution, this fictional scenario helped to address the question many people in the cultural heritage field ask: what can I do in the event of a crisis to protect my cultural heritage?

The 2015 FAC participants had all identified in their applications that their work involves trying to answer this question.

First Aiders in the making

FAC training aims to strengthen individual participant’s capacities for disaster response to cultural heritage which they can then implement at national or regional levels. The course strives to give participants the confidence to become a Cultural First Aider; a person who is proactive yet sensitive to human needs, respectful of the local context, able to develop and implement first aid operations for protecting cultural heritage in coordination with other relief agencies, and capable of assessing and mitigating future risks in order to ensure early recovery. “Each of us will take something different from these four weeks,” says Samuel Franco Arce, a participant from Guatemala, “but we agree that we ALL have something we can do back home for heritage that is threatened by crisis.” The participants are also invited to submit proposals to carry out projects in their respective countries after the course. The short-listed proposals get seed grants from the Cultural Emergency Response Programme of the Prince Claus Fund, in the Netherlands.

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Throughout the intensive four-week course, participants learn the three steps of the First Aid framework (context analysis, on-site survey and security and stabilization actions) and how they are applied in a given complex emergency situation. Guest lecturers from around the world offered information on humanitarian agencies and how the work, risk identification, heritage law, and how to handle damaged objects. Even past FAC graduates spoke about the actions they took within the regions they work once they completed the course, giving the current participants an established “First Aid” professional network.

At a time where cultural professionals are more often called upon to respond to cases of extreme emergency, it is courses like these that hope to give them experience and confidence in making the best decisions towards safeguarding the collections, buildings, and culture for which they care. Jonathan Eaton, a participant from another heritage protection group, Cultural Heritage Without Borders, commented that today’s professionals have, “to face the situation and imagine how we can act and think differently. There is not always a clear easy answer. This is life.”

Download the course poster, infographic, background paper and schedule

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Now that the 2015 course is completed, the course team aims to hold another one in a year’s time, this time hosted by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, who was one of the partner organizations for the most recent course. “This partnership between ICCROM, Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, and the Smithsonian is highly valuable,” says Aparna Tandon, project specialist at ICCROM and FAC Course Leader, “we are extremely grateful for their contributions and hope that this team can continue training Cultural First Aiders for several years to come.”

(article written by Stacy D. Bowe, FAC course assistant)

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