Safeguarding Culture in Conflict

As museums and monuments in Ukraine have been destroyed during war, Corinne Muller of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center reflects on recent collaborations around the world to preserve cultural heritage.


June 27, 2024

Share This Article

The author and other PennCHC workshop participants examine conflict damage and restoration at Berlin’s Neues Museum during a tour by architects Harald Müller and Christine Buchwald.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most significant international treaties for cultural heritage preservation: the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This treaty was the first of its kind to dedicate protection for cultural heritage during times of war and has led to subsequent international safeguarding efforts such as the preservation of monuments, archaeological sites, and works of art.

Over the past two decades, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC) at the Penn Museum has worked closely with local experts across various countries in times of armed conflict to both safeguard their cultural heritage and support the safety of professionals themselves. We have developed and advanced projects during wartime and political upheaval in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently, Ukraine. In this milestone anniversary celebration, the PennCHC has participated in event programming as well as joined the necessary conversations about what the heritage field could be doing better to protect culture and cultural workers at risk during crises, including how to hold offenders accountable.

For the past year, the PennCHC has strongly focused on supporting our colleagues in Ukraine as they work tirelessly to document the destruction of their cultural heritage following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Ukraine’s museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions and historic buildings have been damaged, looted, and vandalized during the war as part of what is now recognized as a deliberate tactic by Russia to erase Ukrainian identity and culture. Our partners at the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab (HeMo) have documented damage to more than 800 cultural sites since February 2022.

In December 2023, we invited a dozen Ukrainian heritage professionals across approximately five different projects to the University of Pennsylvania—together with experts at partner organizations like the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) and Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI)—for a week of workshop sessions focused on how the international cultural heritage sector can better support their important work. Our collaboration with our Ukrainian colleagues has continued through weekly Zoom meetings since then. But in order to develop a solid plan for future cooperation, we knew we had to meet in person again. The 70th anniversary of The Hague Convention aligned with our second workshop with the Ukrainians, and happily for us, the PennCHC team got to meet them halfway in Europe. We’ve just returned from this multi-week trip to Berlin, Germany, and The Hague.


Our four-day workshop in Berlin was packed with brainstorming meetings, presentations, cultural site visits, and plenty of tasty German Brot (bread).

We picked up where we left off at Penn last December: Representatives from each Ukrainian project updated us on their progress and challenges since we’d last been together. HeMo has continued to do courageous work in the field, documenting damage to cultural sites by rockets and other weaponry. Our friends at the Kharkiv Literature Museum are making an inspiring effort to bring visual artists, authors, and musicians in dialogue about the power of art and creative freedom just 20 miles from the frontline of the war. Additionally, the Raphael Lemkin Society is forging a path for legal justice for victims of Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian culture. Meanwhile, we also heard from our U.S. colleagues, like SCRI, who shared how they’ve been remotely researching the destruction of cultural heritage through satellite image analysis.

A professional conference room setting where a group of individuals, seated around a table with name tags and notebooks, attentively listens to two presenters speaking about "Museums in the fog of war" beside a projector screen.
Tetyana Pylypchuk of the Kharkiv Literature Museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine, presents on new initiatives headed by her museum. Photo by Nataliia Rak.

Over the course of our conversations, we spent hours in small group discussions, creating space for Ukrainian colleagues to share their work with U.S. experts, to identify their priorities, needs, and goals, and to collaboratively develop plans for supporting them intellectually, financially, and organizationally during the war and whatever comes next.

In one of the most profound moments of my life—and I’m sure for many others in that room—we heard the testimony of a survivor of a Russian bombardment on a beloved cultural landmark, where they had been sheltering for safety. Hearing this individual’s first-person story of their injury, trauma, and displacement from their family and home following the bombing was the most grounding professional experience of my career. And I am sure that for all cultural heritage professionals in the room, it was strong re-affirmation for why we do what we do.

To break up these intense conversations, we designed a series of visits to cultural sites across Berlin. Because of Berlin’s history of wartime destruction, trauma, and reconciliation following World War II—not to mention its thriving arts scene—the city is rich with fascinating examples of memorialization and post-war reconstruction. We wanted to offer our Ukrainian friends some hopeful examples to reflect on.

A group of people attentively listens to a speaker, standing in an covered courtyard with a modern, geometric canopy structure and the facade of a classic building in the background.
Dr. Brian I. Daniels, director of research and programs at the PennCHC, with workshop participants at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, May 7. Photo by Nataliia Rak.

Together, we visited the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (a nineteenth-century Protestant church bombed in 1943 that deliberately retains its damage); the Jewish Museum (an innovative museum with great significance to Jewish history both in and beyond Germany); the Topography of Terror along the ruins of the Berlin Wall, which memorializes the history of repression during the Nazi era; and the Neues Museum on Museum Island, which was bombed to near ruins in World War II. Each site offered workshop participants a unique approach to the memorialization of wartime destruction, trauma, and resilience.

Visitors explore a historic room adorned with ancient fresco fragments at the Neues Museum in Berlin, examining displayed artifacts.
Architect Harold Müller tells workshop participants about David Chipperfield’s post-war reconstruction of the Neues Museum. Photo by Nataliia Rak.

The Hague

For many of us, these conversations didn’t pause when we left Berlin. The PennCHC team traveled next with several of our Ukrainian colleagues to The Hague, Netherlands, the “City of Peace and Justice.” Home to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, The Hague was the setting for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) conference, “Cultural Heritage and Peace: Building on 70 years of The Hague Convention.”

As most of the field’s most influential organizations and professionals were together in one space, the PennCHC took this opportunity to host a sidebar event focused on the personal safety of cultural workers. Together with our partners at the Artistic Freedom Initiative, we held a panel conversation on “Cultural Rights Defenders’ Safety in Times of Conflict and Repression.” Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, the former director of the National Museum of Afghanistan; Roksolana Makar, a subject-matter expert from the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab; and Mania Akbari, an Iranian visual artist and curator, shared their experiences and advice on this topic.

Panel discussion on "Cultural Rights Defenders' Safety in Times of Conflict and Repression" taking place in a conference room with six speakers seated in front of a large window, addressing an attentive audience.
Roksolana Makar describes her work with the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab during a moderated panel on cultural workers’ safety. Photo by Thomas Bender.

Following this event, I remained in The Hague for UNESCO’s conference, where I had the opportunity to listen to a variety of international diplomats, ministers of culture, and representatives from heritage organizations like ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), who shared their in-country experiences and reflected on the past 70 years—and future—of The Hague Convention.

As an early-career professional, the most rewarding part of this experience was finally being able to meet in person many of the PennCHC’s close collaborators and colleagues. I am most grateful to have experienced this conference alongside colleagues from HeMo and SCRI, as our most important discussions, both professionally and personally, happened in the informal moments over coffee breaks between sessions or a glass of wine decompressing from the heavy topics of the day.

Large group of people posing for a photo in front of a historic building with intricate architectural details and flower beds.
The author and other participants at UNESCO’s 1954 Hague Convention conference on the steps of the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice. Photo by Sicco Grieken, Flickr, May 13, 2024.

It’s been 70 years of The Hague Convention, but the PennCHC sees much potential for the future of the field. We’re honored to have the opportunity to work alongside our colleagues in Ukraine and many others around the world, and we’re committed to foregrounding difficult topics, like personal safety, in the United States and beyond.

Corinne Muller is the Administrative Coordinator for the PennCHC and manages their projects that document conflict damage to cultural heritage. She is pursuing her M.S.Ed. in International Educational Development at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a B.A. in Art History from Wellesley College.

We'd love to hear from you. Share your feedback about Penn Museum Voices Blog:

Explore More

Overhead view of discussion.

Dec. 12, 2022

By Lynn Meskell

UNESCO World Heritage at 50


Explore More

Jun. 27, 2024

By Corinne Muller

Safeguarding Culture in Conflict

Community | Research