Intern Reflection: The Cultural Heritage Site List

Published: September 17, 2018


By Sunny Chen, Columbia University

This summer I had the pleasure of interning at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. I researched cultural heritage sites in Syria, Bosnia, Mali, and Georgia in efforts to create a dataset about cultural heritage.  By studying the history and politics of these countries, I learned to think critically about memorials, monuments, remembrance, and preservation, as well as what is at stake when cultural sites are being intentionally destroyed.

(Aleppo, 2011, via Google Earth)

My task for the internship was straightforward: I, along with four other interns in the CHC, identified cultural sites using Google Earth, then did some research to determine a series of characteristics such as probable state-affiliation, vulnerability to looting, and prior or potential military use.  The thousands of sites that we researched were taken from OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourced database that is particularly useful because it includes sites that may not appear on other maps but nonetheless that have great cultural value to local communities—sites such as ruins, community churches, scenic viewpoints, and public artwork.  We learned to identify mounds, berms, and looting holes, and tells. This research will be used by the Conflict Culture Research Network to create predictive models and to understand why heritage destruction occurs, in relation to regime changes, ethnic cleansing, and religion.

Through documentary and book recommendations from Dr. Daniels, the Director of Research and Programs at the PennCHC, we learned a great deal about the cultural landscape of the countries we looked at, as well as the history of cultural heritage destruction (from ancient eras, to the World Wars, to modern-day genocides) and its litigation. Seeing clear images of destruction through Google Earth—for example, viewing a grand mosque in Syria pre-2011, then seeing a giant crater in its place in a 2017 image—also put the destruction of heritage into perspective.

(Aleppo, 2017, via Google Earth)

In addition to research, I also had the opportunity to see how exhibitions are developed.  The exhibition Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq that the CHC created, which recently opened this year, was extremely eye-opening for me. The exhibition included both ancient objects and modern art, shed light on both the preservation and destruction of Syrian and Iraqi culture, and used digital media and installation.  Seeing both the exhibitions and research aspects of the CHC has given me a different way of thinking about the museums’ responsibility to the past and present peoples and cultures that the exhibition is representing.  My understanding of exhibition development was also deepened through many lectures and tours by conservators and curators throughout the summer.

It was incredible to be a part of a center that is doing is involved in so many amazing initiatives around the world. In addition to my immediate tasks and research, I learned about the PennCHC’s heritage preservation and community development projects with the Tihosuco community in Yucatan Mexico as well as its work with Syrian and Iraqi archaeologists and museum professionals to protect endangered sites in Syria and Iraq.  Our conversations with Dr. Leventhal and Dr. Daniels about their projects and the challenges that they face in the field really deepened my understanding of museum history and policy, repatriation, community development, and the politics of preservation. These conversations highlighted my summer research experience and will definitely stay with me as I continue to explore academic and professional paths in research, museum policy and exhibition planning, and cultural heritage preservation.