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Pusillanimous Pussyfooters: Museums Object Mildly to the (unattributed) Threats to Iran’s Cultural Sites

Say his name!

It was disheartening to realize that almost all of the statements issued yesterday by museums and their professional organizations “condemn[ing] the targeting of cultural sites for destruction” (in the words of the American Alliance of Museums) failed to cast blame for those shameful threats directly where the blame lies—on President Trump.

As most of you by now know, he ignited a firestorm by tweeting this:

If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture [emphasis added].

The palatial complex of Persepolis, circa 518 BCE, is one renowned site fitting Trump’s description of being “at a very high level & important to Iran and the Iranian culture”:

Monumental stairway of Persepolis

In all, there are 24 sites in Iran that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Was Trump planning to convert the list intended to foster preservation into a hit list?

In addition to AAM, those who timidly avoided stepping directly on Trump’s toes while issuing cautionary statements included: the Association of Art Museum Directors; the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in a joint statement; the World Monuments Fund; the Archaeological Institute of America; the Getty Museum.

The Metropolitan Museum was even more circumspect, posting President Daniel Weiss‘ and director Max Hollein‘s joint statement decrying the “targeting of sites of global cultural heritage” in a thread on Twitter, but not, as far as I could see, anywhere on the museum’s own website (neither here nor here).

Metropolitan Museum President Dan Weiss being eyed by Cincinnati Art Museum’s “Cult Statue of Qos-Dushara,” 1st-2nd century, from Khribet et-Tannur, a Nabataean open-air sanctuary in modern-day Jordan
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the above photo, Weiss was addressing the press preview for last spring’s The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East—a show that, in retrospect, was even more relevant than it then seemed. With detailed wall text and video commentary by experts, it spotlighted important sites—including Palmyra, Dura-Europos and Hatra—that had been deplorably damaged in recent times by deliberate destruction and looting, as outlined below by the Met’s organizers—assistant curator Michael Seymour and research associate Blair Fowlkes-Childs:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a partial view of the Palmyra gallery in that recent show:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Like the Met’s officials, Matthew Teitelbaum, director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, took to Twitter to obliquely comment on the importance of cultural property to “our shared humanity,” noting that his museum is “proud to display five millennia of Iranian art in our collection galleries and special exhibitions.”

The only museum professional in my searches who had the guts to unleash a direct anti-Trump tirade was Hollein’s predecessor at the Met, Tom Campbell, the British-born naturalized U.S. citizen who is now directs the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (having improbably switched places with Hollein).

Image of Dan Weiss & Tom Campbell from Campbell’s Instagram feed

Campbell let loose not on Twitter nor on his museum’s website (as far as I could see), but on his personal Instagram feed. Here are some Campbell samples:

Normally speaking, museum directors remain behind the scenes, orchestrating thoughtful dialogues between mutually respectful colleagues about topical cultural affairs. But when the President of the United States inverts every value system our country previously stood for, and calls for destructive attacks against cultural sites in one of the oldest civilizations of the world, you have to speak out vehemently and urgently….

For President Trump to backstop this action by threatening cultural sites in Iran is to reduce western values to those of the ISIS fanatics who destroyed cultural sites in Mosul, Nineveh and Palmyra in 2014 and 2015. Not to mention the iconoclastic atrocities of despots and tyrants in previous centuries. We are better than this, in diplomacy, rhetoric and action.

Right on! It remains to be seen, though, whether Campbell’s candor in bucking the President and the Trump supporters among his museum’s constituency will prove costly. In a touch of tact, Tom did stop short of calling Trump a barbarian, unlike Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott and NY Times critic Jason Farago, who both used the B-word in their opinion pieces.

In the midst of the firestorm over President Trump‘s tweeted threats to Iran’s cultural heritage, the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, discussed the situation yesterday in Paris with Ahmad Jalali, Iran’s ambassador to UNESCO.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay

According to UNESCO’s report on that meeting, Azoulay “recalled the provisions of the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict [aka The Hague Convention] and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage—two legal instruments that have been ratified by both the United States and Iran,” which (along with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347, adopted unanimously in 2017) condemn deliberate destruction of cultural heritage.

As the civilized world recoils, perhaps some good may yet come of Trump’s brash brinkmanship: There is an obvious disconnect between our official government policies for protecting world heritage and Trump’s tromping on cultural sites, as even some members of his own administration’s team seem to appreciate.

In what’s becoming a wearisomely familiar scenario involving our shoot-from-the-lip Commander-in-Chief, his lieutenants are already retreating from his impulsive attacks: As reported last evening by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the NY Times, Defense Secretary Mark Esper “acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime [emphasis added], putting him at odds with the President….’We will follow the laws of armed conflict,’ Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the President had suggested over the weekend.”

When asked about the cultural-property controversy at his own press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this (at 1:47 in the Washington Post video posted on Twitter):

Every target that’s being reviewed, every effort that’s being made will always be conducted inside the international laws of war. I’ve seen it, I’ve worked on this project and I’m very confident of that.

And Kaitlan Collins, CNN‘s White House correspondent, just tweeted this:

Trump appears to back off his threat to target Iranian cultural sites, acknowledging, “If that is the law is, I like to obey the law.” He continues to defend the idea of doing so, asking how some places could be off limits given what Iran has done in the past.

Maybe the strong pushback from defenders of world cultural heritage sites have helped to insure that Iran’s sites are unharmed (at least for now). And maybe the federal Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee (under the auspices of the State Department) can feel more secure about the viability of its stated mission—to “protect sites of cultural and archaeological significance; provide for the lawful exchange of international cultural property; and strengthen the ability of the executive branch to protect and preserve cultural property at risk from instability, conflict, natural disasters or other threats [emphasis added].”

Here’s hoping that the “executive branch” has not only “the ability,” but also the will to further that praiseworthy purpose. As stated in the last sentence of the Metropolitan Museum’s “The World Between Empires” catalogue:

People are more important than things, and insofar as heritage deserves protection in times of crisis, it is as a human phenomenon. Our pasts are parts of our selves, and while individual monuments and sites are fragile and vulnerable, the human desire to connect with, understand and care for the past is incredibly resilient.

So be it.

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