Nation builders or breakers? Combating the looting and destruction of cultural heritage

In the same way that archaeology is used as a tool for nation-building, a proven formula for nation-breaking is the deliberate theft and destruction of significant archaeological remains. What is being done to preserve cultural heritage in war-torn areas and how can we prevent museums from becoming complicit in the theft and acquisitions of looted objects? Museums are increasingly playing a key role in shaping our individual, community and national identity through highlighting our interconnected heritage. How can museums respond to the elevated importance of existing material culture held in UK collections from parts of the Middle East and North Africa?

How should museums respond to the ongoing looting and destruction of cultural heritage?

I am looking forward to chairing a panel session next Monday at this year’s Museums Association conference on combating the looting and destruction of cultural heritage. It’s a timely topic that is constantly in the news. I’ve been wondering what on earth we as museum professionals can do about it which gave me the impetus to propose this session. After thinking long and hard about which voices to bring to the table, I am delighted they were all enthusiastic to participate.

A bit about the speakers and what ground they will cover…

Donna Yates is a Lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime at the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. An archaeologist by training, she is based out of a criminology department and is one of the founding members of the Trafficking Culture research consortium which conducts evidence-based inquiry into the global illicit trafficking of cultural objects. Her research broadly focuses on social aspects of antiquities trafficking, art crime, and related cultural property issues. Dr Yates has recently held a Leverhulme Fellowship and a Core Fulbright Award to study the on-the-ground effects of high-level cultural policy in Latin America and her current work involves security for and protection of sacred art in Latin America and South Asia. Her research and other open research materials can be found on her ever-growing collection of websites, including,,, and

The focus of Donna Yates presentation will be on ‘Who owns the past? She will tackle the global phenomena of looting and illegal trafficking of antiquities and explore some of the causes, motivations and repercussions. Her insights will remind us why it is important to preserve cultural heritage and what strategies and policies might help to prevent or alleviate deliberate destruction?

Donna Yates also runs a fantastic MOOC which I completed earlier this year and is runing again in February 2017. Sign up here:

Robert Bewley is the Project Director of Endangered Archaeology in Middle East & North Africa at the University of Oxford. He was formerly Director of Operations at the Heritage Lottery Fund; South-West Regional Director, Head of Survey and Aerial Survey at English Heritage (and before that the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England). Robert is also an honorary Visiting Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, London and has authored several books. He has traveled across the globe to conduct field surveys, excavations and aerial archaeology training workshops and has just returned from an assignment in Iraq.

Robert’s talk will be on ‘Preserving and understanding archaeology’. He will give an overview of the scale of damage and destruction to archaeological sites in the Middle East & North Africa as well as offer some key insights, challenges and lessons learnt from the pursuit of “Endangered Archaeology”. He will pose a key question: What more can archaeologists and museum professionals do to use the new information from the project, especially to empower local communities to play an active role in the process of caring for heritage?

Stephen Stenning is Director Culture & Development for British Council and was previously based in Cairo until 2011 where was Director Arts Middle East & North Africa. Stephen has a track record of running and programming successful arts organisations, events and venues, he originally working in London as a published playwright and director then moving to Scotland as a theatre director and Festival Producer. Before joining the BC, Stephen was director Edinburgh Mela and on the Board of Festivals Edinburgh and produced successful Scottish events — ‘Big in Falkirk’ (Scotland’s National Street Arts Festival), ‘Merchant City Festival’ and ‘Glasgow Art Fair’.

Stephen will shed light on the notion of ‘Cultural Heritage Protection’. Following the recent degradation and destruction of sites in the Middle East and North Africa, DCMS has established a Cultural Protection Fund of £30m that is being managed by the British Council. Stephen will reflect on the latest developments following the first round of grant applications.

Noorah Al-Gailani has been the Curator of Islamic Civilizations at Glasgow Museums since 2003. She is based at the Burrell Collection but works across the city’s many museums to interpret Islamic art and culture, both ancient and modern, through research, exhibitions and a variety of educational activities and public events. Noorah graduated with a BA in Interior Design from the College of Fine Arts, Baghdad University and gained three years experience in design and folk art preservation before coming to live in Britain in 1992.

She will give us a presentation on ‘Engaging visitors with link collections’. Using the Mesopotamian collection in Glasgow Museum as a case-study, Noorah will exemplify how UK museum curators with limited resources and short timescales can use relevant objects in their museums to engage with local minority ethnic communities of Iraqi and Syrian origin. A lot of this publicly owned material culture is now the only surviving evidence of that heritage (e.g.: Assyrian Nineveh and Nimrud in Iraq; Islamic Raqqa and Roman Palmyra in Syria). How could this UK-based material culture be made more accessible to both those devastated communities in the Middle East and Arab diaspora communities in the UK to benefit the preservation of these people’s cultural identity, and to help in resisting the destructive ideologies that wish to distort or obliterate these identities?

I’m hoping this discussion will help to inform museum professionals why this topic is important and perhaps explore how we can all use our agency across the sector to make a positive difference in protecting cultural heritage . Hope you can join us!

Nation builders or breakers? Combating the looting and destruction of cultural heritage

07 Nov 2016 | 12:00–13:00 | Seminar Suite, Upper Level

Follow #Museums2016 for live updates on this session from midday on 7 November.

This event is part of this year’s Museums Association conference strand on ‘People and Places: Stories, Communities and Collections’

See the full conference programme taking place at Glasgow SECC here

We’ll also be at the ICOM UK hosted luncheon straight after the panel to continue conversations with conference delegates and special guest France Desmaris, Director of Programmes and Partnerships for ICOM. France is the Permanent Secretary of ICOM’s Disaster Risk Management Committee(DRMC) and an active representative of the Blue Shield international, working closely with the world’s largest museum institutions, national governments and international organizations to develop and enhance ICOM’s impact in the protection of cultural heritage around the world. The department she runs is specifically active in ICOM’s international fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods, the field of emergency preparedness and response for museums, and the development of training programmes for museum professionals.

@LootBuster is an collective advocacy campaign to combat the looting and destruction of cultural heritage through ethical museum practice.