By Christopher Moran ABU DHABI, 2nd December, 2016 (WAM) — With its pledge to create a US$100 million fund, The International Conference for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage, is underway at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

Over the course of two days, heads of state, government ministers and experts from more than 40 countries have gathered to take part in a series of panel discussions and workshops.

The first panel discussion, Preventive Heritage Protection, was chaired by Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in London, who said that the world has seen seeing images of wanton destruction of vital important heritage sites in warzones around the world.

“We need to have emergency preparedness plans which form the basis for trials and exercises to prepare our staff for any kind of emergency which may occur, and anticipate the needs in such cases. We faced terrible acts of destruction in Palmyra, Nimrud and elsewhere – but with preventive measures in place, we can collectively respond to situations like this with knowledge and foresight.”

Panel Moderator, Anne-Marie Afeiche, Director at the Museum of Beirut, “We were faced with such destruction during the civil war in Lebanon.” She said that if it is important to be ready to preserve heritage, then the case of Lebanon is ideal to use as an example. “The whole history of the country is told in this museum. But another history, that of the civil war, has had a huge impact on us.”

“Thanks to the dedication of the then Director, many of our objects were protected by being encased in concrete, while smaller objects were hidden away from view. But even then, we suffered damage from other elements, as the basement was flooded and many pieces were ruined,” she said.

However, with the ability to re-build and preserve these pieces, we have recently re-opened with a collection of over 500 objects, Afeiche said. “This was made possible by a group of people who were able to implement a disaster management programme. Without that plan, and the training associated with it, we wouldn’t have such a splendid collection.”

Suay Aksor, President of ICOM, the International Council of Museums, said that the conference aims to find solutions to the problems faced in preserving documentation these days. “We have identified a vital need for a safe haven for cultural heritage.”

She explained that the local people of any conflict region could be pivotal in situations like this. “People have a natural propensity to protect their property, and these are the people who are the initial protectors of any heritage. We care for collections – they are our heritage, our identity. Archives are just as important as art, and once these are gone, then our history has gone too.”

“But, respect for the wishes of the community involved are paramount. It is vital that we work in conjunction with those who are there, even if it does mean providing a safe haven elsewhere, as has been demonstrated by ‘museums in exile’ for the protection of cultural property,” Aksor said. “Which is why I am so grateful that we have come together for this conference to create this fund.”

Zaki Aslan, Regional Representative of ICCROM, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural property, said that the international agenda must include protection of all forms of cultural and national heritage.

In 2012, the centre opened the ATHAR-ICCROM Centre in Sharjah to work with member states and other organisations on specific projects for the region. The centre recently received a visit from HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, with H.H. Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, where he was briefed on efforts to develop national capacities in the region.

“Intentional damage to objects of historical importance in conflict areas has increased exponentially of late, and we are working on preventive conservation, protection, storage, and damage assessment. With ICCROM’s holistic and innovative approach to protracted crises, our offices in the region are safeguarding heritage documentation,” she said.

“Heritage protection resolutions in regions are helping to form policies but it is almost preposterous to think that just one body can achieve all this – so we must engage with many parties to make sure that we continue to facilitate building bridges to safeguard our culture for the next generations.”

Anna Paolini, Director of UNESCO’s regional office in Doha, highlighted that UNESCO is the only body which can address the destruction of tangible or intangible, movable or immovable objects in regions of crisis.

She said that UNESCO co-operates at field level with local bodies who can contribute to the broader response required in any given situation, as seen recently in Mali, Syria and Iraq.

The detailed recent deliberate targeting of heritage sites, which involved working closely, and developing common strategies, with local partners.

“We have to mitigate risk, we must integrate heritage in national emergency plans, raise awareness. There is no zero risk situation, but we should work closely together in our efforts to protect heritage.”

Abdulla Al Raisi, the Chairman of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme and Director-General of the UAE National Archives, spoke of the importance of protecting all forms of documentation, not only historical, but also our more modern archives, those which relate the recent history of people in the context of their heritage.

“Why do we need to document, to preserve? These are memories of the world – our societies exist purely because of documentary evidence and if you lose this history, you have no compass for the future.

“It is vital that we have access to all records, including digital, in order to be prepared for, and able to prevent, disasters. Conflicts, wars, floods, earthquakes, these do not just affect buildings – they also threaten our documentary heritage. In order to safeguard this heritage, we need to copy, to digitise, to use measures like 3D imaging, or the new process of cloning, to create multiple copies in multiple centres. These safe havens have allowed us to preserve 4,000 manuscripts in Mali, 70,000 documents of deceased persons in Lebanon, and a range of documents preserved in Aleppo,” he said.

You have heard much today of what is being done now , but there is so much more we can do into the future in our quest to preserve and protect our documentary heritage, Al Raisi added.

“We need to implement more risk management, to help in the administration, training and implementation of projects. For this, we need legislation to facilitate national and international plans, training for those in the field, and new, more modern equipment. But most of all, we need the people, the community, because without their help, we cannot succeed.”

“There are no ‘certain’ predictable conflict areas, terrorists have no defined territory, even so-called safe areas can suffer damage and crises, and technology changes all the time, so we have to continuously upgrade our equipment, Al Raisi added. “This is why this conference is so important, as it helps create awareness of how important this work is. We cannot deprive a new generation of their heritage, because once documentation is gone, it is gone forever.”