Preserving Cultural Heritage
In 2016, recognizing that irreplaceable cultural heritage is being lost at an alarming rate around the world, the Whiting Foundation committed to joining the fight to save the treasures of human civilization from threats both man-made and natural.
As we develop this new area of our grantmaking, we are learning from other international funders and nonprofits that offer crucial support for these efforts – and especially from the dedicated local stewards of heritage whose practical efforts on the ground are the sine qua non of preserving our shared inheritance now and in the future. Here are just a few examples of the heroic responses we have heard about by these stewards in a single region, the Middle East and North Africa, to a single type of threat, the deliberate destruction of heritage during conflict:
• In Mosul, as ISIS threatened invasion, the staff of the Mosul Museum labored around the clock to send what could be sent to Baghdad and bury what couldn’t; as a result, some of the objects ISIS jackhammered on camera were plaster reproductions rather than priceless originals.
• In Timbuktu, by the time Ansar Dine turned its destructive attention to the troves of manuscripts that were the city’s pride, the vast majority had been spirited away to Bamako through an extraordinary effort coordinated by a leading local librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara, who organized a troop of volunteers to carry trunks stuffed with papers hundreds of miles under cover of night.
• At the Ma’arra Museum in northern Syria, a local team trained in the technique used during World War II to protect Da Vinci’s Last Supper sandbagged the Roman and Byzantine mosaics at the site, so that when a barrel bomb hit the building weeks later, nearly all remained intact.
• In Cairo, a conservator named AbdelHamid Salah El-Sharief anticipated future threats by founding the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, a team of cultural first-responders. During the training of the first cohort, a bomb blast at a police station across the street from the Islamic Museum shattered much of its exquisite glass collection, but the trainees were able to minimize the damage and stabilize the museum’s holdings.
We believe the work of these passionate caretakers to save the fruits of the human endeavor is urgent, and that it is imperative that the past be handed on to the future with as little loss as we can manage.