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Map showing potential damage to Ukrainian Cultural Heritage sites. Count of: 1,595. Memorials/Monument: 692, Places of worship and burial: 508, Museum: 122, Library/Archive: 108, Heritage building: 100, Undermined: 35, Archeological site: 20, Performance center: 10

Conflict Observatory Project

Meet the team harnessing satellite imagery in a new way to help protect cultural heritage sites in Ukraine.

A decade ago, a small band of researchers began asking questions about why, when, and by whom cultural heritage is targeted in armed conflict. Despite significant scholarship around different areas of war and human rights violations, cultural heritage had been given little consideration. It was especially important because cultural heritage is a source of resilience for communities. There was a gap in theories of conflict, why heritage is targeted and by whom, and how people live through periods of war.

This sparked material for a collaborative NSF grant with partners that included the Penn Museum, The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Developing a Research Community and Capacity for the Study of Cultural Heritage in Conflict. The results of the research included common definitions and coding standards to enable the future development of large-scale datasets documenting and quantifying the destruction of cultural heritage.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, deliberate destruction of Ukrainian heritage became a war issue.

The team, composed of the Smithsonian and its partners, the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, was ready to help. They began with a database of Ukrainian heritage sites they had been working on since 2021. 

They were invited to join the Conflict Observatory, a project managed by Environmental Systems Research Inc (ESRI) for the U.S. Department of State. The Conflict Observatory is a public central information hub about the Ukrainian conflict. It shares analyses and preserves publicly and commercially accessible information, including satellite imagery and information shared via social media, consistent with international legal standards for use in ongoing and future accountability mechanisms. 

For methodology, the team uses the cultural heritage inventory data they developed under the Cultural Heritage Site List (CHSL) data standards established by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Understanding and articulating patterns of destructions can be the basis of documentation of war crimes and a road map for recovery.  

Satellite imagery alone will not improve methods of accountability or recovery strategies. Using its long-term experience and wide range of expertise, the team collects and analyzes information and then shares it in accessible formats, fostering data driven decision-making to protect cultural heritage.

To learn more about the team’s work under the Conflict Observatory project: Conflict Observatory - Potential Damage to Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Sites

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Ukraine Map

SCRI Research Reports

Follow the team’s work on Ukraine and other parts of the world.

Research Profiles

Dr Katharyn Hanson

Katharyn Hanson, Ph.D., is the Head of Research at the Smithsonian's Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) and a Smithsonian Secretary's Scholar. Dr. Hanson is an archaeologist specializing in the protection of cultural heritage. Previously she served as a Heritage Preservation Scholar at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), Executive Director of The Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TARII), a visiting researcher at the Geospatial Technologies Team at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and held post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and MCI. She previously directed archaeological site preservation training at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, Iraq. She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled “Considerations of Cultural Heritage: Threats to Mesopotamian Archaeological Sites.” She currently serves on the Board of TARII and she has been involved in various archaeological fieldwork projects for over 25 years and has curated museum exhibits and published on damage to cultural heritage sites. Dr. Hanson's research combines archaeology, remote sensing, and cultural heritage protection methodology and policy with on-the-ground action to protect culture.

Dr. Brian I Daniels

Brian I. Daniels is the director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Daniels co-directs the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project, which aims to enhance the protection of cultural heritage by supporting professionals and activists in conflict areas, and leads a National Science Foundation-supported study about the intentional destruction of cultural heritage in conflict. He has also worked with local communities on issues surrounding heritage rights and repatriation for over fifteen years. Previously, he served as the manager of the National Endowment for the Humanities regional center initiative at San Francisco State University, where he worked on strategies for community engagement and folklore documentation. Dr. Daniels received his doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Hayden Bassett

Hayden Bassett is a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution, the archaeology curator at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and the director of the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML). The CHML is a collaborative lab operated by the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Through this lab, Dr. Bassett conducts global satellite monitoring and analysis to identify and safeguard cultural heritage threatened by armed conflict and natural disaster. Dr. Bassett is closely involved with the SCRI-supported U.S. Army Monuments Officer Training (AMOT) program, and through the CHML, provides support to U.S. Government agencies and international cultural heritage NGOs. Previously, he served as an archaeologist for the U.S. Department of Defense, where he directed archaeological fieldwork and cultural property protection in East Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and throughout the United States. Dr. Bassett received his doctoral degree from the College of William & Mary.

Dr Nana Kaneko

Dr. Nana Kaneko supports the coordination of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF). The HENTF, co-sponsored by SCRI and FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (OEHP), is a public-private partnership of 60 national service organizations and federal agencies working to protect cultural heritage in our nation’s states, tribes, territories, and local communities from the damaging effects of natural disasters and other emergencies. Prior to joining FEMA’s OEHP, Kaneko was the SCRI Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Program Manager for Cultural Disaster Analysis where she monitored, organized, coordinated, and evaluated program implementation, operations, and administration to meet the needs of cultural heritage organizations working on response. Kaneko completed her Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside, in 2017. Her dissertation, entitled “Performing Recovery: Music and Disaster Relief in Post-3.11 Japan,” examines the role of music in recovery efforts following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear fallout that struck Northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. Kaneko conducted two years of fieldwork while based in Sendai as a visiting researcher at Miyagi University of Education.

SCRI Director, Cori Wegener

Corine Wegener is director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), an outreach program dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage in crisis situations in the U.S. and abroad. SCRI’s work includes projects in Syria, Iraq, Haiti, Nepal, and around the world. SCRI also co-chairs, with FEMA’s Office of Environmental and Historic Preservation, the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, part of the U.S. National Disaster Recovery Framework. Before coming to the Smithsonian in 2012, Wegener was an associate curator in the department of Decorative Arts, Textiles, and Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. During a concurrent career as a US Army Reserve officer, she served on several military deployments, including as an Arts, Monuments, and Archives Officer assigned to assist after the 2003 looting of the Iraq National Museum. Wegener has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Nebraska Omaha and MA degrees in Political Science and Art History from the University of Kansas.