Sunday 12 June 2022

More US Fictionalising in Cultural Property Research? [Updated]

     I wonder who or what in Ukraine CHML Director
     Bassett imagines he is "commanding" from Virgina.

While there are very many grounds to be seriously concerned about what is happening in Ukraine, and also about the fate of the cultural heritage in that country, I think we need to be careful to stay within the bounds of the objective truth when talking about it. The old saying about the first casualty of war being the truth should not be applicable in heritage resource research. We saw the distortions happening in the US campaign in Syria, where all sorts of accusations were made that bore no relation to what is/was on the ground and in verifiable sources. Several academic institutions got some nice grant money to "research" these issues - some of them coming up with results that seem to be be of questionable balance. I do not see why we have to tolerate the same thing happening here. 

I am prompted to write this by the shock-horror headline of today's The Observer: "Specialist gang ‘targeting’ Ukrainian treasures for removal to Russia: International academics and digital imaging experts have spotted a pattern in the theft of high-value artefacts" (Vanessa Thorpe Sun 12 Jun 2022 08.00 BST). Is that really what is happening? Ms Thorpe writes:

A specialist gang is smuggling valuable historic artefacts out of Ukraine and into Russia, according to an international team of academics and digital technology experts who are tracking thefts. “There is now very strong evidence this is a purposive Russian move, with specific paintings and ornaments targeted and taken out to Russia,” said Brian Daniels, an anthropologist working with archaeologists, historians and digital imaging specialists. From a laboratory in the US state of Virginia, Daniels and his colleagues have monitored the despoiling and destruction of cultural targets since the invasion began, and have detected patterns in the crimes.
There is some confusion about this "laboratory in the US state of Virginia" where Daniels and his colleagues have been doing the monitoring that led to this conclusion. In an earlier Guardian text by the same Vanessa Thorpe, there is mention of a  "network" (sic) involving  "The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville [...] set up last year in partnership with the acclaimed Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative". Dr Brian I. Daniels is listed on the website of the latter ["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"]. Hence his interest here, I guess. Meanwhile, the website of the so-called Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, run by the Virginia Museum of Natural History does not mention him as a member of staff (he also denies being affiliated with them but insists he has plenty of evidence for his claim). The article goes on:
The trail of thefts focuses heavily on precious Scythian gold. These are high-worth ancient filigree pieces, often depicting animals. They were produced by tribes of the area of central Asia and eastern Europe once known as Scythia. “These items are visually stunning, and there are now so many reports of thefts it is evident that it is a strategy,” said Daniels. “The Ukrainians, of course, are also very keen that we establish a list of stolen items.” Daniels told the Observer that it was hard to know if the monetary value was the most important factor for the Russians, or whether the objects were chosen for their cultural significance. “There is a possibility it is all part of undermining the identity of Ukraine as a separate country by implying legitimate Russian ownership of all their exhibits.” What is clear to Daniels is that the thefts tend to follow the menacing interrogation of museum curators and custodians. Russian attempts to locate and steal hidden artefacts in occupied Ukrainian cities are becoming more determined.
I'd like to see this US ("international") orientalising backed up with some actual facts and numbers.

Like, for example, just how many museums have been looted by this alleged gang to date. Among the ten (?) arts institutions that have been damaged or destroyed so far are the Ivankiv Museum in the Kyiv region, the Regional Art Museum in Chernihiv, and the Kharkiv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre Museum and the nearby Hryhoriy Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum. But (as far as we know) the art collections of the City Museum in Kiyiv, Kharkiv and Chernigov were not looted by Russians. Neither was there any looting on museums reported during the concentration of Russian Federation troops around Kyiv (in the regions of Hostomel, Irpin, Bucha). At the time of writing (apart from Crimea), the invading troops of the Russian Federation are only in control of  the eastern and southern fringes of the country, at least part of which had their art collections evacuated when this war began in 2014. So I am not clear where the "Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab" is getting the data from on which these statements are based. 

The Museum in Mariupol was damaged by an airstrike that left paintings exposed to the elements, hanging on walls amid piles of rubble. It was in Mariupol on  April 28th, that city council officials announced that Russian forces had stolen “more than 2,000 unique exhibits from the city’s museums". The items that were taken included, they say, a “unique Torah manuscript” and a “Gospel from 1811 created by the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol”, Orthodox icons, 200 medals and three works by Ukrainian realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi vanished from the painter’s namesake Kuindzhi Art Museum and works of Ivan Aivazovsky. Both painters were born in Ukraine (Aivazovsky in Crimea and Kuindzhi in Mariupol), but are often described as Russian. Other missing works are by Tetyana Yablonska (1917-2005), a politically active Ukrainian painter who was born in Smolensk, Russia, and Mykola Hlushchenko (1901-1977), who lived in Donetsk from a young age but was also born in Russia. It is being claimed that it is significant that "paintings by Western European artists were not [removed]". According to the city council, the Russian forces took the art to Russian-occupied Donetsk. Natalia Kapustnikova, director of Mariupol’s Museum of Local History has been accused of delivering the artworks directly to the Russians, asserting that Kapustnikova, “who knew the exact place of secret storage of masterpieces, personally passed everything from hand to hand”. Whether she received something in return is not stated. Several Mariupol Museums have been heavily damaged by shelling and satellite images show the destruction precisely in the vicinity of the Museums. At least one of these structures has lost part of its roof. To what extent does safeguarding by an occupier become "theft"? 

                    Layla Ibrahimova              

In another case, discussed by me earlier here ('2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Russian Invaders Reportedly Remove Scythian Gold' PACHI Saturday, 30 April 2022, see also 'Melitopol Museum Inventory April 2022 ' PACHI 2nd May 2022), in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, objects are reported as having been taken by Russians from the city's Museum of Local History. They included Scythian gold artefacts and again medals (of the Soviet period). "Museum workers had hidden the gold in the basement when a squad of armed Russians arrived and took it. Melitopol’s mayor said in a statement that he did not know the current whereabouts of the objects". I suggested in my post that the details of this case differed from what was being reported in most of the external press, much of it based on interpretation of one video report from the museum after the director was apparently replaced. [Early reports about another incident involving the looting of Scythian gold from the museum at Zaporozhia turned out to be a journalists' confusion of the same incident with the wrong museum.]  

Unless Dr Daniels has much more information that has not yet been made public, I really have problems seeing this as "very strong evidence" that this is an organized campaign of "specific paintings and ornaments targeted and taken out to Russia”. Last time I looked, Donetsk is still in Ukraine (and is of course the centre of Donetsk Oblast which Mariupol lies), and it is not in fact clear whether the Melitopol artefacts in fact left the Museum that is apparently now under a new, Russian-appointed, caretaker director. The Museum's original director Leila Ibragimova on 10th March was arrested by armed and uniformed men at her home and led away with a bag on her head and detained. Although it is reported (by Crimean Tatar activist Eskender Bariiev) that she was released the same day, her current whereabouts is unknown, which is a cause for concern. Her detention however may be as much related to her position in the town, and ethnic origins (she is a Crimean Tatar) as to a specific interest in the Museum collection.  

The statement that Vanessa Thorpe seems to be assigning to Dr Daniels: "the trail of thefts focuses heavily on precious Scythian gold" is simple hyperbole. As far as we know only the objects stashed in unlabelled cardboard boxes in a museum cellar  that were retrieved when the Russian appointed director moved in seem to be the only Scythian artefacts involved (so far).  

UPDATE 13.06.202
In the discussion in social media of this text, Dr Daniels  enlarges somewhat
Brian I. Daniels @DrBrianIDaniels
W odpowiedzi do @PortantIssues i @ChasingAphrodit
There is considerable evidence that I hope can be made public in due course. Also, @PortantIssues , I do not work for the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Laboratory [now rephrased above - PMB]./ I am in close contact with the VNMH-CHML team and the team at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative on damage issues. On looting, I’m working directly with the Ukrainian colleagues. I won’t make a public statement that I don’t think can be supported in a court case.
Through the quotes in this article, Dr Daniels has already made public statements, but we are a very long way from winning this war, apprehension of anybody involved, charging and any court case (if ever). Which is why I think abnybody making judgements and then inflamatory statements in our field, need to make the evidence fully available to public opinion. Otherwise we are going to have a repeat of the Syria 2014-8 situation, where to accompany the US bombing campaign the organisation ISIL is accused of antiquity crimes on a huge scale to the near-exclusion of mentions of other groups and distortion of the discussion on the wider phenomemnon in the media, and what is worse, academia.

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