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Summary

  • This briefing discusses the work of the partnership between Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) and the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML) at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, as they race to help Ukraine protect its national treasures threatened by the conflict.  The CHML/SCRI team of archaeologists, historians, and high-tech mapping experts are monitoring over 26,000 cultural heritage sites in Ukraine, using satellite imagery to help protect heritage sites, alert Ukrainian officials to damage, and help officials track attacks.  This effort began in April 2021, and it employs a combination of remote sensing, open-source research, and satellite imagery tasking to gather evidence of cultural heritage damage. The partners have released an impact report, which provides a summary of potential impacts to cultural heritage sites following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The initiative is supported by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)

MODERATOR:  Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing on the Smithsonian’s cultural heritage rescue work in Ukraine.  My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am the moderator. 

First I will introduce our briefers, and then I will go to the ground rules.  This briefing will discuss the work of the partnership between Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative and the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History as they race to help Ukraine protect its national treasures threatened by Russia’s invasion. 

Briefing with us today are Eric Catalfamo, director of the Cultural Heritage Center in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; Cori Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative; and Hayden Bassett, assistant curator of archaeology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and director of the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.  I would like to thank all of our briefers for sharing their expertise today. 

And now for the ground rules.  This briefing is on the record.  The briefers are independent experts, and the views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.  Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. 

We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website.  Our briefers will give a presentation, and then we will open it up for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, you can use the raise hand button or submit your question in the chat.  And with that, I will pass it over to our first briefer, Eric Catalfamo. 

Over to you. 

MR CATALFAMO:  Thank you, Jen, and good morning or good afternoon to everyone.  My name is Eric Catalfamo.  I am the director of the Cultural Heritage Center in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs here at the U.S. Department of State. 

Our Cultural Heritage Center leads U.S. cultural diplomacy by working with international partners to preserve heritage and protect culturally important sites, objects, and practices around the world in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. 

I would like to thank all of you for attending, and especially for your continued reporting on the situation in Ukraine, as the people of Ukraine are facing an unwarranted, unprovoked, and unjust war by Vladimir Putin. 

The ceaseless bombardment of Ukraine’s cities, infrastructure, and people by Russia’s forces has created one of the fastest-growing humanitarian crises in recent decades and put Ukraine’s unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage quite literally in the crosshairs.  We know that Ukraine is home to centuries-old historical and architectural landmarks that speak to the unique cultural identity of the people of Ukraine, and that the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage is an attack on the identity of those people. 

Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent, sovereign state and as a culturally, historically, and geopolitically distinct entity is, unfortunately, consistent with a long series of attempts first by imperial Russia, and then later by the totalitarian Soviet Union, to subjugate and forcibly Russify Ukraine.  

The United States has already assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, and we note with concern that any intentional attacks on cultural property may violate the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  Secretary Blinken has said that there must be accountability for these actions, and the United States is supporting a range of mechanisms to document and pursue accountability for war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. 

A team from the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab will outline today their impressive commitment to documenting Ukraine’s tens of thousands of cultural heritage sites and their status during Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine.  This work is an important contribution to fully assessing the condition of Ukraine’s cultural heritage and demanding accountability for actions to harm or destroy that heritage. 

Simply put, Ukraine’s cultural heritage is irreplaceable, and its damage or destruction would be a profound loss to the entire world.  The international community must stand together to safeguard Ukraine’s unique cultural heritage, both now and in the future. 

Since 2001, the United States has been proud to award over $1.7 million in grants to support the preservation of Ukrainian ethnographic objects, religious sites, manuscripts, and historic and academic buildings, including important Ukrainian historical sites.  We will continue to support the Cultural Heritage Center in Ukraine moving forward.  This commitment is part of our whole-of-government response to Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and just another example of how we stand united with Ukraine. 

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Eric.  And now we’ll go to Cori Wegener at Smithsonian. 

Cori? 

MS WEGENER:  Good morning, thanks.  I’m Cori Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.  Our mission with the Cultural Rescue Initiative – it’s an outreach program of the Smithsonian, and the mission is to assist cultural heritage in times of crisis.  And that includes human-caused and naturally caused disasters. 

Our work with a number of organizations started with the 2019 – sorry, 2010 Haiti earthquake, where we were requested from the Smithsonian to provide assistance for cultural heritage after that terrible disaster.  Since then we’ve worked in a number of countries around the world, helping communities and cultural heritage workers deal with disasters in their own countries.  And so we’ve worked in places like Mali, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and the – after the Nepal earthquake in 2015.  But most recently, we’ve been assisting our colleagues in Ukraine. 

Some of the organizations and partnerships that we have achieved over the years have helped us work in Ukraine.  So we’re partnering with the Prince Claus Fund Cultural Emergency Response, and our local organization partners, the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative.  We’ve talked with a number of officials through our coordination with UNESCO, including the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, and we’ve, in more recent days, had a number of opportunities to hear from Ukrainian museums and cultural organizations, as well as scientific collections in Ukraine about their immediate needs.  So through Zoom and other remote work we’ve been able to provide some advice and assistance, and we look forward to how we can further help in the coming days. 

Our coordination has also included U.S. agencies like the Department of State, and working with the U.S. interagency organization, the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee. 

Our past work in Iraq and Syria has also led to some important research.  The Conflict Cultural Research Network is a group of academic institutions here in the United States that have focused on how to best document damage to cultural heritage during armed conflicts.  And our work with Iraq includes projects with the Nimrud Rescue Project through funding from the U.S. Department of State, as well as the recovery and reopening of the Mosul Cultural Museum.  And as part of that work, we developed a methodology working on documenting satellite imagery and damage in Iraq and Syria, where we were able to create a methodology to help create data sets to study the destruction of heritage in conflict. 

We’re very happy and lucky over the past couple of – or year and a half to work with the Virginia Museum of Natural History and partner on the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.  So we were able to bring some of the methodologies that we created to better document damage to heritage in armed conflicts using satellite imagery and other types of remote sensing and open source data gathering to apply that to the work that we’re partnering with Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.  And since over a year, we’ve been documenting damage to cultural heritage in Ukraine, which of course was greatly advanced during the past several months.  Excuse me. 

So I think I’ll stop there and let our colleague Dr. Hayden Bassett brief you up on the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.  Thanks. 

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Cori.  Hayden, over to you. 

MR BASSETT:  Thank you so much, Cori and Jen.  My name is Hayden Bassett; I am the Assistant Curator of Archaeology here at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, where I also serve as the Director of the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.   

I’m going to quickly share some images on my screen for you, just to give you a little bit better a visual of some of the things Cori was talking about, and some of the things that we’ve been doing as a part of this effort over the past year, but really as Cori said, in a really advanced way over the past few months.   

So the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab is a global effort here at the museum in order to monitor cultural heritage threatened by armed conflict and natural disaster.  We do this activity all over the world.  We are global in scope.  Right now, we are simply focused on Ukraine just simply because that’s where we recognize the most impact is occurring.   

At the moment, we are monitoring over 26,000 cultural heritage sites in Ukraine.  Many of these are cultural heritage as you would think of it, but I would like to stress that it’s also cultural heritage broadly defined.  Cultural heritage in this sense includes everything from archaeological sites, museums, archives, libraries, monuments, memorials, shrines, places of worship, and as well as many other categories.  So in terms of what types of cultural heritage we are monitoring, it’s everything from international significance, national significance, regional, all the way down to very locally significant cultural heritage. 

This is a database that we’ve been creating over the past year, really, in order to do this type of monitoring activity in multiple ways.  As Cori mentioned, we gather information from open sources – social media, news media, that type of thing.  But really our – most of our monitoring effort relies on satellite technologies.  So first and foremost, a team here at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, a team of six analysts, monitors cultural heritage impacts as first indicated by what we call remote sensing.  This is simply the sensors on board satellites that allow us to determine when and where an impact has probably occurred.  From this, we go through a process to increase confidence levels.  We go from a range of potential impacts all the way up to confirmed impacts.  Now, that process of confirming impacts relies on satellite imagery itself.  I just want to give a brief example just to demonstrate this.   

Many of you have probably seen this in the news, back in February, but this was one example of the type of monitoring identifications work that we did, and confirmation work.  This is the Ivankiv Museum.  The upside-down L-shaped building in the center of the image is the museum itself.  Through our remote sensing technology, we initially received an indication that some type of kinetic activity had occurred on this site.  And so for us, that made this a potential impact, along with many other potential impacts to other cultural heritage. 

The next step in our process was simply tasking an image, or retrieving an image of this immediately following that event in order to determine if an impact had indeed occurred at the Ivankiv Museum.  This is February 14th, 2022, which you are looking at on the screen right now.  This is February 27th, 2022, so a few weeks later – not even a few weeks later.  I will toggle that image one more time – 14 February 2022, 27 February 2022.   

For us, this was an indication that the museum had clearly been impacted quite heavily.  As you can see, only the walls are standing in this image.  The roof is now missing, and much of the contents of the museum have now burned.  For us, this was – this triggered a reporting requirement.  And so for any time we identify an impact like this to cultural heritage, we automatically generate reports for our stakeholders.  And when I say stakeholders, I mean, again, broadly defined for stakeholders.  It includes everything from cultural heritage NGOs, international cultural heritage workers, people who have a vested interest in order to determine when and where some type of mitigative action needs to take place with stabilizing a facility or safeguarding collections that now might be vulnerable simply because they’re exposed to the elements.  And so this is the type of effort that we do in order to get to something like this. 

So our reporting from this work, it takes several forms.  I’ll just give you one great example of that.  This is available on our website and available in the invitation to this media event.  But this is a report that came out April 6th.  This was publicly distributed.  And what you’re looking at is a summary of our potential impacts that we’ve identified to date.  And so the left image there is the report itself, and then I’ve blown up two images within there for convenience, but the one with all the blue dots, this is our 26,000 cultural heritage sites that we’re monitoring throughout Ukraine. 

To the right, you will see that side-by-side comparison with a heat map of impacts, potential impacts that we’ve identified from that 26,000.  And then below that you will see a summary of site types represented in those potential impacts.  As you can see, many of those include memorials, but also many of those include places of worship.  Those two are probably the most impacted site types from our probable impact list so far.   

Now, this report is publicly available.  We anticipate doing a serial form of this, so regular reporting, and the next one is scheduled to come out in the next week or two.  So you will see an update to this that will also include numbers of confirmed impacts as well. 

Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Hayden.  Is that the wrap-up to your presentation? 

MR BASSETT:  Yes, ma’am.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We will now begin the Q&A for today’s briefing.  As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please use the raise hand button, or you can send it in the chat.  I see we have a couple hands raised, and I will call on them shortly, but to kick us off, I’d like to start with an advance question that was submitted by Janet Ekstract from Turkish Journal, and her question is:  “Can you describe any special methods you’re using to get artwork out and to protect it in Ukraine?” 

MS WEGENER:  I guess I’ll take that one, Jen.  So I don’t – I understand that our Ukrainian colleagues have done a lot for the protection of their collections.  So it’s normal procedure in a disaster or potential disaster situation to have an emergency plan for your collections, and to figure out alternative storage locations where you can pack and create things and take them for safety.  I think a lot of – we’ve seen in the media that a lot of this type of activity has been going on for certain museums that were considered at risk, and they’ve managed to store things in offsite locations.  And – but I haven’t heard any reports of things going beyond internal movement of collections. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I would now like to call on Dmitry Anopchenko from Inter TV, Ukraine.  Dmitry.  

QUESTION:  Oh yeah, hello, do you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yes, we do.   

QUESTION:  Lovely, thank you for this briefing.  And you – I’d like to shift the point of view a little bit.  You spoke a lot about the documenting of the damage, which is really important.  But I spoke with my audience, my friends, and people who are still in Ukraine – in Odessa, in Kyiv, in Lviv – and they’re concerned very much about what can they do to protect this cultural heritage before we need to document the damage.  All the people can do, they just put the sand around the monuments, and that’s it.  They don’t have any understanding what to do.  They don’t have any idea or guidance how to protect them.  It’s honest. 

So I got the question for you, Eric:  May U.S. Department of State provide any guidance or any finance to protect the heritage or monuments before we need to document the damage?  

And I’d like to ask Cori and Hayden:  So if you will speak to Ukrainian audience, not only to people who are just doing there in the country the work you are doing here in the United States, what would you recommend to protect all of this under the shelling, under the bombing during the wartime?  Thank you very much. 

MR CATALFAMO:  Thank you for the question, Dmitry.  In terms of what can be done now, we think that the work that Hayden’s team at the monitoring lab is really essential to be able to have a baseline of what is there on the ground in Ukraine in terms of cultural heritage assets, and then also, as he, I think, so vividly demonstrated in his images, what kind of impacts are we seeing.  And that speaks to the need for more protection in the here and now. 

We are working with partners within the – in the U.S. Government and affiliated agencies, including the Smithsonian Institution, on how we can give advice to Ukrainian cultural heritage professionals and museum professionals to be able to safeguard items in the here and now.  And so the State Department chairs a interagency committee called the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee, which specifically works on cultural heritage protection in situations where that heritage is prone to damage through a variety of reasons, including conflict.  So we’re in the coordination stage now, but some of our member agencies and member bodies have been taking concrete action. 

And so I’ll – let me stop there, in case some of my colleagues on the line perhaps have more to add.  Thank you. 

MS WEGENER:  I’ll just add that we’re very fortunate that some of our colleagues working within the Ukrainian ministry of culture, like the colleagues in the Heritage Emergency Response initiative, have received international training from the Smithsonian, ICCROM, and the Prince Claus Fund, among others, who we teach a methodology for preparing collections and monuments and sites against the dangers of natural and human-caused disasters, and that includes war. 

And so it is a standard operating procedure to protect collections in situ that cannot be moved – immovable sites, monuments, and buildings – using sandbagging, boarding up windows and doors, and attempts to make sure you have heightened fire protection in case of bombing, et cetera.  So while it doesn’t – it maybe doesn’t seem adequate, the sandbagging, we’re seeing really good examples of how Ukrainian colleagues have taken on that task and managed to protect many of their immovable sites.   

And then just regarding protecting collections by moving them, as we mentioned earlier, so it’s – some standard practices are definitely in effect, moving collections from higher levels of the buildings down to the lower levels, making sure that they’re in a state where they’re packed and created, which adds an extra layer of protection aside from the building, and then, even in some extreme cases, needing to move them to a safer onsite storage location.   

So everybody’s kind of doing the best they can.  And of course, you can always use more resources and equipment and tools, but the Ukrainian colleagues are actually pretty well trained in this.  But we have been consulting with people, as I mentioned, online and through Signal and other resources. 

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Cori.  I’ll take a question from the chat which is related to this.  This comes from Jorge Dastis from EFE news in Spain.  He has two questions.  One for the State Department:  “Could you outline what are some of the strategies the State Department is working on to further help Ukraine protect its cultural heritage if the war drags on, as has been signaled by the Defense Department recently?”  And for the Smithsonian representatives:  “Has there been any talk or plans to temporarily move Ukrainian heritage out of the country and safeguard it either in the States or other allied countries while the invasion continues?” 

MR CATALFAMO:  Thank you for the question.  To begin with the part on State Department strategies, let me say – let me refer again to the to the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee that I mentioned earlier.  So that committee is chaired by the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Lee Satterfield, and our assistant secretary convened a meeting of that group earlier this month in April, where we spoke specifically about what agencies across the U.S. Federal Government can do in this regard to help Ukraine protect its cultural heritage. And we are working with partners who remain in Ukraine and who, similar to what Cori described in terms of previous training, the U.S. has been working with Ukrainian partners to preserve cultural heritage for over 20 years and with dozens of partners in a total of 18 projects located across Ukraine.  And so we’re in touch with those folks that we have worked with over time.  We want to encourage resilience from them and from the institutions that they represent.   

And then just yesterday here at the State Department, at our National Museum for American Diplomacy, we convened a workshop to invite leading Ukrainian museum professionals and members of the museum community here in the United States to hear more specifically what the problems are that are being faced, recognizing just how difficult the situation is.  And so we held that dialogue yesterday.  Our assistance secretary of state, again, as I mentioned, she participated.  And we heard firsthand from Ukrainian museum professionals about the – this really unrelenting threat that their institutions and their collections are under.  

So we recognize that this threat and any form of destruction against cultural heritage is a attack on identity and on history and on the dignity of the Ukrainian people, and we are working assiduously to address that threat.  Thank you.  

MS WEGENER:  And I guess I would add the answer to the question about moving collections to other countries.  While the museums of the world, in Europe especially, stand ready to assist our Ukrainian colleagues in any way that we can, I think I would have to defer that question to officials with the Ukrainian ministry of culture.  And so far I haven’t heard any indications of a plan like that.  The focus is very much on protecting cultural heritage collections and sites and monuments inside Ukraine.   

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Cori.  I’ll now go to Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.  Alex?   

QUESTION:  Yes, Jen, thank you so much for doing this, and I thank all the speakers for their services, of course.  Can any of you please speak to the importance of those cultural heritage sites that Putin’s forces have been targeting during the past two months to the people of Russia, given their shared history with Ukraine that Russian leaders themselves used to talk about not too long ago?  I think sometimes we forget how bloodthirsty regimes are damaging things that are really important to their own people.   

And one more question to follow up with Dmitry’s question, if I may, and that goes to Eric, of course.  As the State Department is considering its options to restaff its embassy in Kyiv, I know this might take some time, but I was wondering if you are working with other embassies or international organizations who are already present there in terms of coming up with some fact-finding missions or expert trips from Washington or other capitals with a particular focus on this issue to both monitor and document monuments and buildings?  Is that on the table in the long or short term?  Thank you so much again.  

MR CATALFAMO:  Well, let me — 

MR BASSETT:  I think that’s – go ahead.   

MR CATALFAMO:  Please, Hayden, you want to take the first part?  

MR BASSETT:  Sure, I’ll take the first part of that question.  Thank you so much.  The question about the significance of cultural heritage sites that we’re monitoring right now, it could be shared significance, it could be significance just to a few people or a few groups.  I’ll start by saying that why we’re monitoring 26,000 sites – we’re monitoring 26,000 sites because we’re not in a position to make statements of significance.  We’re not in a position to prioritize.  We’re sitting here in the U.S.  We are not Ukrainian.  At the end of the day, the statements of significance, prioritization, that is up to Ukrainian cultural heritage professionals and Ukrainian people, or whomever might find these sites significant.   

What our job is to monitor basically all cultural heritage that we can identify, cultural heritage across the spectrum, in order to identify every impact.  There are many – if we were to just monitor 100 sites, that would inevitably involve prioritization on our part or making some type of assumption or statement of significance on our part.  Rather, we monitor the entire picture and then work, report to different stakeholders for them to make those prioritization statements, for them to make those statements of significance.  

So I’ll say our objective is really sort of at the foundation level.  I think some of the things that you’re talking about are – more rest with some of our stakeholders who receive this information and use this information more so than us, who produce this information.  

MR CATALFAMO:  So let me – let me add to what Hayden has said then by also pointing out that really any attack or any damage to cultural heritage is unacceptable.  And at this stage, even with the kind of remote monitoring that the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab is undertaking, it’s really impossible to know how many invaluable historical buildings or memorials, monuments, et cetera, have been damaged by Putin’s bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages.   

If we look back over a period of years, even before Russia’s 2022 war against Ukraine, we know that Russia illegally exported artifacts from Crimea and took them for display in Russia, conducted unauthorized archaeological expeditions, demolished Muslim burial sites, and damaged cultural heritage sites.  And so there’s a history here, and in the very opening days of this conflict, we saw the damage to the Ivankiv Museum that Hayden demonstrated on the screen.  We saw as well the really unconscionable, horrific bombing that took place in the area around Babyn Yar, which is a site in Kyiv where more than 100,000 Ukrainian Jews and non-Jews were executed during the Second World War by Nazi German forces.  And so wherever cultural heritage is damaged, I always like to say this – cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource, and it’s irreplaceable.  And so that damage really represents a profound loss to us all. 

To your question on what kind of information we were able to get on the ground, I don’t have anything to share with you in terms of staffing at our embassy in Ukraine.  But I’ll tell you that we’re working with partners, including the other briefers on the call today, to gather information, right?  So there’s technological ability, which Dr. Bassett has described, and then we’re also – as I mentioned, we’re speaking to partners from the cultural heritage community that remain in Ukraine.  And so that’s another important way for us to stay informed. 

But, look, we have said that one of the important roles that the State Department can play in terms of protecting Ukrainian cultural heritage is to call out the damage by Russia’s forces when we see it.  We think that there is a important deterrent effect there.  We know that the world is watching, and there are eyes on what’s happening to these sites.  And so we’re going to continue to monitor, to continue to call out any threats or damage or destruction, and be preparing to work with Ukrainian partners when the time is right to do any kind of repairs and reconstruction to these sites and these objects.  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We did have a follow-up submitted in the chat, which is from Jorge Dastis at EFE again.  The follow-up question is:  “Is any of the new funding that President Biden has requested from Congress intended for these efforts?” 

MR CATALFAMO:  I think we’d have to take that question back.  That’s a fresh proposal from the White House just yesterday, and I don’t have any information as to whether there’s a line in that that would be specifically for the State Department within these efforts. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  

Alex, did you have a follow-up?  I see your hand is still raised. 

QUESTION:  No, that was all.  Thank you so much for your answer. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thanks, Alex.  

I don’t see any other questions submitted in the chat, or hands raised, so with that we will conclude today’s briefing. 

On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank our briefers for speaking to the foreign press today.  Thank you, and good morning. 

U.S. Department of State

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