Special Features

PHOTO: “Chinese horse” cave painting at Lascaux. @ Gaël de Guichen / ICCROM Archive

Special Feature 1

RE-ORG Nigeria

An Interview with Dr Abubakar Sule Sani, Senior Lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria


PHOTO: Dr Abubakar Sule Sani. © ICCROM

ICCROM: Thank you for speaking with us. Can you tell us about RE-ORG Nigeria?

Abubakar Sule Sani: RE-ORG Nigeria is a national project to improve storage conditions in Nigerian museums. The project is funded through a generous grant from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP). We collaborated with ICCROM, the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and Ahmadu Bello University to implement the project across Nigeria with 13 participating museums. There are ten Nigerian national museums, two specialized institutions – one being the Archaeology Department at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria and one being the Arewa House, the university’s historical centre for documentation and research – and one museum at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I’m an archaeologist with a master’s degree in history and a combined PhD in art history and archaeology. I was privileged to work for six years at NCMM before I transferred my services to the Ahmadu Bello University. Initially I worked as curator of the university museum, and then I converted to teaching archaeology. Archaeology has a strong component of heritage studies, so in the courses I taught, we created a way of dealing with the management of collections. After my participation in the China RE-ORG workshop, I began to introduce RE-ORG principles into the courses.

How did these organizations come to a decision on how to use the RE-ORG funds?

The museum collection at the Arewa House was created in the early 1950s, while the collection at Ahmadu Bello University’s Archaeology Department was developed in the late 1970s by a German professor of art history with objects from ethnographic groups from across Nigeria. The problem was that the collection had to change premises every ten years, which affected the documentation and state of preservation of the objects. We recognized that these priceless objects had no house where they could be cared for, so we argued to have a purpose-built museum. When we got the RE-ORG grant, the university graciously agreed to match with US$100 000 for a new building, a modern museum facility. In fact they built this new museum in 12 months, and a portion of the RE-ORG funds could be used immediately to provide the furniture needed for the collections.

Could you tell us more about these collections?

As we moved collections to the new space, we discovered objects hidden for over 40 years, objects I didn’t know about. At first the collections were focused on northern Nigeria, but when the government took over the university in the 1960s the museum shifted to a national collecting focus. The collections cover about 350 ethnic groups of Nigeria and deal with festivities, religious systems, body adornment and technological development. The terracotta Nok head sculptures of northern Nigeria, dating to about 2 000 years ago, are fully represented in our collections. The exhibits show the technological advancement of the Nigerian territory in ancient times, including sophisticated smelting and bronze-working skills.

What was the response to the project from the museum managers and staff?

Initially there was some suspicion and pessimism from the staff, and I think they didn’t appreciate or understand fully how RE-ORG works globally. I was the first Nigerian to participate in the RE-ORG project at the China workshop, and I took responsibility upon myself to ensure it would be implemented in Nigeria. So the other institutions had an impression that this was my personal project. The grant money came when Nigeria was in recession, and the collaborating directors thought the project wouldn’t happen.

I first gave a talk in Abuja about the technical issues of RE-ORG itself. Social media platforms facilitated lively debates about the project, particularly with other museum professionals, and there was a lot of enthusiasm at the mid-professional level. It took four days of intense negotiation with the National Museum to develop the hierarchy framework for control and monitoring of the project, using a tripartite arrangement with different responsibilities for each organization. What convinced them was the pilot activity held in Jos. It was practical, and we created opportunities for engagement and discussion with stakeholders, including National Museum managers and staff in Jos and Abuja. That helped clear the negative perception about the project.

How did you engage the outside community in the project?

After any RE-ORG project, part of the recipe is always to stage a final social outreach event to select objects for a final exhibition, lecture and presentation. These are objects that were previously hidden or obscured, and you try to create stories around them. The public talk and stakeholder discussion are very important and effective. Being a project mentor opened the way for me to give a talk, not exclusively to museum professionals but also to the local community.

At the public talk we discussed what we have, that it is theirs as stakeholders, and why museums are social institutions. We explain that we are curators and managers, but we are there to serve them. The integration of the exhibition and public lecture into what is essentially a space management project makes huge strides in engaging and including communities.

Did you come across any community members with a personal connection?

I spoke to a Muslim man who had never been to the museum due to a negative perception that visiting a museum is idolatry. Over 20 years that he’d been in Kaduna, he stayed away because he thought it was forbidden. He sold fruit nearby and by chance he was invited. He didn’t want to partake, but after a while he realized it was about issues he’d been interested in for a long time. It was about him, about his roots, and he said to the curator that it was historical, not un-Islamic. I remember he used this word. Afterwards, he wanted to return to the museum but did not have the money, so we waived the entry fee for him so he could return.

What are your plans to take the project forward?

It’s about sustaining the methodology. We appreciate so much the generous contribution from the US Ambassadors Fund to do RE-ORG in Nigeria, and we think this is the first level. I’m beginning to look at those museums that were not selected, which have problems that need to be addressed. The museums that are not visible to us are mostly private or community museums, but I don’t think they will be a problem as the management responsibilities rest with the owner. It’s about engaging and negotiating with them and volunteering to give them the skills to implement RE-ORG.

There’s a need for resources, and I have two strategies now. The first one is to apply for grants and implement them from corporate institutions through social responsibility. At one level I will negotiate and engage, but at another level we need to see if RE-ORG can be implemented without the grants. I’m convinced that yes, even with little funding it can be done. One way is to provide free volunteer services for these museums to implement the projects. I’m impressed at this level that the resource people that we trained at the first stage are competent now to start new projects and need only minimal supervisory oversight. Their energy and enthusiasm can ensure that the RE-ORG initiative will progress in Nigeria, no matter what.

Special Feature 2

The Importance of Knowledge-Sharing Tools

Interview with Dr Muriel Verbeeck, École Supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc de Liège, University of Liège, Belgium


PHOTO: Colonnade, Palais des Princes-Evêques, Liège, Belgium. @ AnnDcs / Shutterstock

ICCROM: Thank you for this interview. Could you please describe your background and your various roles?

Muriel Verbeeck: I am a historian and philosopher by training and currently a full professor of history, theory, and ethics of conservation and restoration at the École Supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc in Liège. I am also a researcher in the Art, Archaeology and Heritage Research Unit at University of Liège, as well as the scientific editor of CeROArt, an open access journal. CeROArt is devoted to a multidisciplinary approach to the conservation, restoration and display of works of art and offers a space for exchanges among historians, art historians, philosophers, heritage scientists, conservators and restorers, as well as representatives from the wider world of museums. For some years now, CeROArt has been publishing articles from first-time authors while supporting their studies. These include young conservator-restorers who have recently graduated from master’s degree programmes or doctoral students preparing their theses.

What is your relationship with ICCROM?

I have known ICCROM for a long time now, but specifically in 2017 I arrived to carry out research into the history of conservation theories. During a stay as an ICCROM Fellow, I worked on what distinguishes the founding texts, what links them, and sometimes what sets them apart – less often than you might think. For me, examining the history of conservation theories, by highlighting contextual characteristics, is a way of putting so-called ‘absolute truths’ into perspective, while encouraging reflections in terms of continuity and evolution, rather than rupture. The project, initiated at ICCROM, has had a certain impact, because in 2018 I was able to take advantage of a research grant from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles to continue the work. It also has become an important line of research for the ConnecTheo research group, created recently with the backing of the Périer-D’Ieteren Foundation. During my stay at ICCROM, I came to appreciate the richness of its Library and Archives. It’s a truly remarkable and complete collection that has benefited over many decades from an intelligent acquisitions policy with a perceptible scientific and humanistic approach. More specifically, in restoration history and theory the study resources are unrivalled anywhere. I should also like to highlight the expertise and friendly helpfulness of the librarians and archivist, whose advice was particularly useful for me. The fruitfulness of research also depends on the climate, and ICCROM’s is unmatched. Coming here is always a pleasure, and I return as often as I can.

How has this collaboration progressed in 2018?

It has moved to a new stage. At the suggestion of the librarians, we came up with the idea of creating an automatic upload of articles appearing in CeROArt directly in the ICCROM Library catalogue. There they will have a far greater visibility and will be of greater use to the research community. This has been achieved over 2018 by means of data files processed by CerROArt which were transferred through MarcEdit software and integrated into the ICCROM catalogue. This makes the articles visible and available to a much wider audience – not just at ICCROM but to all those who connect to it through various information-sharing networks. These include the URBiS network, which brings together the libraries of all the foreign academies in Rome; the BCIN network, which contains records from five major conservation institutions (ICOMOS, CCI, Getty Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution and ICCROM); and the Electronic Journals Library or EZB, managed by the University of Regensberg in Germany. This last portal assembles in an online format nearly 100 000 journals coming from some 600 libraries.

For you, what is the value of ICCROM and its Library?

ICCROM’s reputation is already well established, but it takes a period of living and working there to appreciate why its reputation is so well founded. Discovering how alive the institution is, the role of different players, its most recent achievements, its engaged and devoted staff, and their sheer delight in sharing knowledge and expertise – all this is an experience with no substitute.

At a time when many institutions are facing draconian budget cuts in access to knowledge, ICCROM is a beacon of hope – its Internet presence is a real plus, and the catalogue is quite remarkable. Let’s hope that skilled staff remain available for acquisitions and cataloguing, useful for researchers and essential for students writing their theses. Conservation researchers cannot really survive without the resources and opportunities that the Library offers. Let’s keep the flame alive!

Special Feature 3

Stewardship of Contemporary Art in Latin America and the Caribbean


PHOTO: Ayrton Senna sculpture by Melinda Garcia, São Paulo, Brazil. © Sérgio Valle Duarte / Wikimedia Commons

The Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region is home to a constellation of prolific artists and creators. Their works are a living, growing source of contemporary culture, incorporating graphic art, performance, audio-video, textiles, public murals, digital experiences and installations of all kinds. More and more organizations are embracing this creative discourse as a means of building and sustaining community identities, even as new artistic expressions are constantly evolving and redefining the contexts, forms and materials of cultural heritage.

In response, ICCROM has been developing a region-wide survey to assess the scope of contemporary art collections in Latin America and the Caribbean. The survey aims to capture the opportunities and challenges these collections pose, as well as the networks, resources and needs of conservators and managers tasked with their care.

The current project builds from a pilot survey begun in 2017 in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of Argentina (Dirección Nacional de Bienes y Sitios Culturales). The survey, administered to 100 museums and 25 cultural authorities in Argentina, focused on contemporary art conservation in museums. A follow-up meeting on contemporary art conservation took place in October 2018 at the National Museum of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Also in 2018, ICCROM analysed the survey data, spotting trends and gaps. One key result signalled a growth spurt for contemporary institutions. About two-thirds of responding collections in Argentina were under 25 years old, and the number of artworks in those collections is on track to double in 30 years.

A simple but meaningful change for the new LAC regional survey is a push for wider representation. Contemporary art in Latin America and the Caribbean is not displayed, collected and managed solely by museums. Lima, Peru, for example, did not have a dedicated contemporary art museum until 2013. Before then, innovative organizations filled the cultural gap. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, contemporary art can be found in community and cultural centres, galleries, banks, outdoor spaces, online organizations and private entities. All these serve as stewards in various ways. The region has a significant history of alternative curatorial spaces and practices, often developed against political or economic suppression.

The upcoming survey aims to capture a more inclusive profile of contemporary collections: how they are managed, how resources are distributed, what policies they adopt, and how and where these collections are made accessible to the public. A central goal is also to understand how organizations and professionals connect with each other locally and globally. Networks of communication, both formal and informal, are moving beyond workshops and conferences to more immediate global platforms such as shareable cloud-based drives or message threads on WhatsApp. As contemporary collections rapidly grow and materials change, these exchanges become vital lifelines for new research questions.

Professionals in the Latin American and Caribbean region have been at the vanguard of ICCROM’s commitment to heritage management practices for new media. In 2007, the Brazilian National Archives (Arquivo Nacional do Brasil) hosted the inaugural SOIMA course for sound and image preservation. The 2017 contemporary art study with Argentina was the first of its kind for ICCROM.

Also upcoming in 2019, ICCROM will collaborate with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, a world leader in research on and promotion of contemporary art. The intent is to advance shared education and programming goals, including a special focus on Ibero-American initiatives. These dovetailing collaborations will strengthen a broader regional partnership and identify common successes and struggles that can inform future activities, workshops and programs. For ICCROM, embracing the diverse ecosystem of contemporary media is a necessary step into an exciting frontier.

Special Feature 4

Media Outreach in Times of Crisis, Mosul, Iraq

Profile of Dr Layla Salih

PHOTO: Dr Layla Salih at Mosul Museum, Iraq. © Patrick Tombola

An archaeologist from Mosul, Iraq, Dr Layla Salih was caught off guard when the Mosul Museum, where she was a curator, began transferring some of its objects to Baghdad in 2003 in advance of the Gulf War. In 2014 the Islamic State closed the Mosul Museum. It was looted shortly thereafter. Searching for ways to protect the city’s antiquities and manage future crises, Salih attended conferences to share her story and seek help from the international community.

In 2016 Salih was invited to attend the First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC) course in Washington, DC, which ICCROM implemented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and the Prince Claus Fund. FAC’s in-depth professional training helps reduce risks to cultural heritage during crisis events by integrating heritage protection into existing national emergency management systems. Participants learn methodologies required for securing and stabilizing cultural heritage in a crisis. They also gain leadership and negotiation skills required in complex emergencies and work with specialists to learn about crisis communications.

Salih quickly put what she learned to use. A few months after she completed the course, the southern part of Mosul was liberated, and she was one of the first to review the damage inflicted on the Mosul Museum building and its exhibits. She worked alongside the military and local militia to assess the damage and develop a plan of action for salvaging the affected heritage. Her work expanded to include the investigation of other sites in northern Iraq, such as Nimrud, that were equally affected by the conflict.

During this period, Salih recognized the crucial role the media played in conveying the threats to Mosul’s heritage to the rest of the world. Working closely with the media during and after a time of crisis has proven essential in bringing attention to conflict situations, including damage to and illegal traffic in heritage and related humanitarian abuses. Sharing information and increasing communication with the media have become a part of Salih’s advocacy for improving preparedness and response.

Salih has reached out effectively to the Arab and Western press alike. Her interviews have been featured in international media outlets including Agence France-Presse (AFP), Al-Fanar Media, Al-Monitor, the Associated Press (AP) and The Guardian, together with national ones such as National Public Radio (USA), La Repubblica (Italy), Sept.Info (France), Smithsonian Magazine (USA), Der Stern (Germany), The Telegraph (UK), and The Times (UK).

“The media is the link between the people and the disaster,” says Salih, noting how the media has helped her raise awareness about cultural heritage during periods of crisis. “So maybe those people are the link between us and the stakeholders, local authorities and the international community.”

Salih continues to mentor her colleagues and other cultural heritage professionals in Mosul and throughout Iraq. “I believe that archaeology can bring peace and reconciliation between peoples,” she says.