“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” ~ as seen above the door of Kabul’s Museum in Afghanistan
On April 9, 2008 members of academia, press, SAFE and the public gathered together at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to voice concern over the continuation of illegal looting in Iraq since April 2003. The panel of assembled experts included Lawrence Rothfield, Director of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, USMC Reserves, Donny George Youkhanna, former Director-General of the Iraq Museum, Patty Gerstenblith, Professor of Law at DePaul College of Law, McGuire Gibson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chicago and Corine Wegener, President of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, those in attendance were treated to an impassioned presentation about the looting which began at Iraq’s National Museum in April 2003 but which continues throughout Iraq today. Each presenter spoke on his or her area of expertise and built upon one another’s lectures so that the result was a heady conversation which began with the history of Iraq and ended with the dictates of international law with regards to cultural heritage during armed conflict.
Perhaps most provoking was the message with which the presenters left the audience – that the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage was preventable and that we, the American people, could have made a difference if we had only been able to reach across political barriers and classrooms and share with one another the importance of cultural heritage.
This story about Iraq’s looting is a tragedy, but it does not have to be the ending to the story. By shaking off our apathy, we, the American people, can ensure that our policymakers and soldiers are well-aware of the value of cultural heritage…that they gain awareness that a few bricks can tell us more about ourselves than a lifetime of conversations….that if this rate of destruction in Iraq and elsewhere does not slow down and end, we are in danger of losing our very selves.
As Donny George put it, “The looting of the National Museum is so tragic because it was the one place in the world where someone could go to trace all of civilization under one roof.” If we remain silent while the looting continues, then we not only actively silence the voices of the past but we distance ourselves from those who paved the way for today’s civilization. When we no longer hear their voices, how will we understand our own?