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Smithsonian CULTURAL RESCUE INITIATIVE

In the midst of recent world news of intentional destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites as prominent as the Mosul Museum or Jonah’s Tomb, thirty reserve commissioned and non-commissioned Army officers from the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade trekked through extremely cold Washington, D.C. weather to participate in the Smithsonian-sponsored training on Cultural Property Protection and the 1954 Hague Convention. The two-day training was held on Thursday, February 19, at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMfAA) and on Friday, February 20, at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) in Suitland, Maryland.

Corine Wegener, Smithsonian Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, welcomed the group, identifying their Civil Affairs role as “Modern Day Monument’s Men” with responsibility to advise unit commanders about cultural heritage issues, legal obligations, and diplomatic concerns that a unit could encounter in deployments to the Middle East or throughout the world.

Soldiers were provided two days of sensitivity training on Islamic Art, the 1954 Hague Convention (which provides for the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflict), and an overview of disaster management for cultural heritage. Richard Jackson, Special Assistant for Law of War Matters, Department of the Army, provided historical examples where commanders had to look to their Civil Affairs and Judge Advocate General officers for cultural heritage advice before making tactical decisions.

Following this thread, Major Thomas Livoti, Institute for Military Governance, led a lively discussion on recognizing and protecting archaeological resources for successful mission accomplishment. Using several examples, he asked, “is it a military objective or cultural heritage property?” Livoti’s response, “it depends,” was further explained with specific guidance to make qualitative engagements with minimal intrusion. In the role of CA officers, he recommended talking with locals, abiding by the rules of engagement, recording location and site attributes, and documenting with photographs.

All of the day’s training came alive during a practical role-playing exercise in the NMfAA where Civil Affairs officers were deployed to the museum after a disaster. Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Director, NMfAA, met the soldiers and begged them “to help me get our collection back”. In the scenario, the collection had been recently looted as a result of armed conflict. Christina Craemer, Assistant Director, NMfAA, spoke highly of the soldiers’ thoughtful questions and response, saying to them, “this exercise was intended for you, but it made me think of the “what if’s” something happening in our museum?”

On the second day, soldiers met Jessica Johnson, Head of Conservation, MCI, in Suitland, Maryland, to learn about conservation practices, tour the collections in storage, and learn about object handling, packing, and crating. Johnson and Smithsonian’s Robert Patterson, Exhibits Specialist, led participants through practical exercise.