By Angela Escobar

In response to the wide-scale destruction of cultural heritage during World War II, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague Convention) was adopted in May 1954. The convention sought to ensure that cultural property, both movable and immovable, was safeguarded and respected as the common heritage of humankind. Cultural property and cultural institutions, as long as they were not put to military purposes, were to be protected in armed conflicts.

In the decades following the adoption of The Hague Convention, the protection of cultural property remained of vital interest to the international community. A number of charters, conventions, and recommendations dealing with this issue were proposed and adopted. Involvement in safeguarding the world's cultural heritage expanded from government agencies to nongovernmental and private organizations.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the international and massively destructive conflicts that The Hague Convention was designed to address were replaced by intrastate and ethnic conflicts. Destruction of heritage became an element in campaigns of humiliation aimed at subjugating opposing ethnic groups. Among the international responses to this devastation was the formation of the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), established in 1996 by the International Council on Archives (ICA), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Taking its name from the symbol specified in The Hague Convention for marking cultural sites—the blue shield—the ICBS seeks to protect cultural heritage, including museum collections, by coordinating preparation to meet and respond to emergency situations.

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The conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s also forced the international community to reexamine The Hague Convention, which had only partially addressed intrastate warfare. The result was the 1999 Second Protocol to The Hague Convention, which strengthens the convention and creates a new category of enhanced protection for cultural property deemed to be of the greatest significance to humanity. The Second Protocol also outlines measures for safeguarding cultural property to be undertaken in peacetime. These include "the preparation of inventories, the planning of emergency measures for protection against fire or structural collapse, the preparation for the removal of movable cultural property or the provision for adequate in situ protection of such property, and the designation of competent authorities responsible for the safeguarding of cultural property."

The establishment of the ICBS and the Second Protocol resulted in a greater sense among museums and other cultural institutions of the need for coordinated action, planning, and strategic thinking to safeguard cultural heritage. Yet despite this awareness and the potential for loss through human-caused or natural disasters, emergency planning is easily postponed. Indeed, most museums do not have a viable emergency plan. The urgent need within most of the world's museums and cultural institutions for emergency planning has never been adequately addressed.

Since the mid-1980s, the GCI has worked actively as an advocate for the protection of cultural property and toward the development of practical solutions to technical problems faced in protecting collections and buildings in emergency situations. Now, in a strategic effort to address this concern at the international level, the GCI is joining with ICOM and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) to develop an education initiative focused on integrated emergency management (risk assessment, and emergency preparedness and response) for museums and other cultural institutions.

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This collaboration will be undertaken within the broader framework of the Museums Emergency Program (MEP), initiated by ICOM as a strategic multiyear project in response to the global need for museums to develop expertise in the areas of emergency preparedness and response. Its aim is to advance understanding and awareness of the nature of disaster phenomena, and of how to limit and contain damage by preventive conservation measures and rapid intervention.

Program Objectives

The protection and security of cultural heritage are often the responsibility of a diverse group of people both within and outside of an institution. These people include personnel charged with administrative, technical, and support duties, as well as various community stakeholders and local, national, or regional emergency responders (e.g., fire and rescue departments, regional emergency prevention units, and the Red Cross). The alliance of these individuals and groups is critical to the creation of a viable and sustainable integrated emergency management strategy.

The aim of the MEP Education Initiative is the protection of cultural heritage through the strengthened capacity of museum and heritage professionals in the various aspects of integrated emergency management. The initiative will build capacity in both risk assessment and emergency preparedness by combining training workshops with on-the-job learning and practical experience.

The objectives of the initiative include developing:

  • a curriculum that enables participants to understand and become skilled in the theoretical and practical aspects of integrated emergency management;
  • a bibliography of recent literature and didactic resources related to integrated emergency management and a list of key materials to support MEP's education efforts;
  • learning materials and tools to support the curriculum; and
  • alliances with international, regional, and local organizations for heritage and/or emergency preparedness and response, in order to promote interdisciplinary cooperation and the sustainability of MEP's education initiative.

MEP partners will work closely with colleagues in the heritage and emergency preparedness and response fields, in order to ensure that this education initiative reflects best thinking and practice, while remaining mindful of regional contexts, resources, and opportunities.

Integrated Emergency Management

The term integrated emergency management refers to a complex series of interdependent skills, knowledge, and experience. An understanding of integrated emergency management is a long-term process that cannot be effectively acquired through short courses or workshops. To this end, one of the first components of the MEP Education Initiative is the extended-length Integrated Emergency Management course.

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Integrated Emergency Management will be offered regionally, starting with a pilot course in Asia. Targeting museum and heritage professionals working in the region, the curriculum will combine classroom-based teaching with distance learning and practical work carried out at the participants' institutions. The course will guide participants through the intellectual and practical processes associated with various aspects of integrated emergency management, as well as allow them to adapt and implement locally sustainable approaches. Participants will gain experience performing an institutional risk assessment, forming contacts with emergency and security personnel, and developing an emergency preparedness plan tailored to their institution's specific situations.

Some of the topics to be covered in the Integrated Emergency Management curriculum include understanding, assessing, and managing risk to cultural heritage, and developing and implementing emergency preparedness plans and strategies before, during, and after an emergency.

Participants will have access to experienced colleagues who can guide their work during both classroom-based workshops and the distance learning and practical work phases of the course. Teachers for the workshops will include professionals from the heritage and security/emergency preparedness fields. In addition, mentors will be used to assist participants in the practical aspects of performing a risk assessment and in implementing emergency preparedness.

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As part of the developmental work for the Integrated Emergency Management course, the MEP partners are creating a bibliography of published work—including print and online resources—on various aspects of integrated emergency management. The bibliography, which will be searchable, will be developed in phases in order to allow portions of it to be made quickly available to the field.

While MEP's education strategy will focus on movable heritage, it is recognized that the program must look beyond the traditional idea of a museum collection. Movable heritage may include archives and libraries, sacred objects located in religious buildings and precincts, and collections held within community buildings and public spaces

Disasters of both the human and natural kind will never be fully preventable. What can be prevented—or, at least, minimized—is the damage to and destruction of cultural heritage that is often the consequence of their occurrence. It is hoped that efforts such as the Museums Emergency Program—and the Education Initiative that is part of it—can significantly assist those charged with protecting our heritage to achieve that goal.

Angela Escobar is assistant editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.