Addressing the conflict-affected heritage in Ukraine: Challenges and Responses

In February 2020 over 200 museum workers from different continents joined symposium in Washington to discuss the topic "Current Approaches to the Conservation of Conflict-Affected Heritage".

The symposium was organized by "Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative""Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute",  "ICOM Disaster Risk Management Committee" and supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation"..

Corine Wegener — the director of the Smithsonian Institution Culture Rescue Initiative — briefly explains the goals of the event. "Our mission is to protect cultural heritage threatened or impacted by disasters. And to help the USA and international communities to preserve their identity and history. One way we pursue our mission is to host a research symposium, bringing in scholars and practitioners from around the world to share their work".

During the quarantine, organizers decided to provide free access to some of the speeches from this year's symposium.

Ihor Poshyvailo, Director of the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity made a report on the topic "Addressing the conflict-affected heritage in Ukraine: Challenges and Responses".

You can find a video of the presentation at the bottom of the article.

Ihor Poshyvailo briefly spoke about his participation in the symposium in the "Voice of America" program.

Addressing the Conflict-Affected Heritage in Ukraine: Challenges and Responses


Ladies and Gentlemen. I’m grateful to the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the partners for raising the topic of protection of cultural heritage in armed conflicts. It is our common responsibility to safeguard cultural heritage that represents our nations’ identities and has long become an integral part of humankind’s legacy.

As Ukraine’s Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko stated at the United Nations  Security Council briefing on the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflicts, since times of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emer de Vattel, the international community has developed a wide framework of rules and procedures to protect cultural property from harm. However, it continues to remain the object of destruction, looting and trafficking. The aftermaths of recent and on-going conflicts in Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and Africa are still fresh in our memory, with numerous barbaric acts committed against the civilization itself.

Regrettably, the topic of today discussion is also relevant to the situation in my country as the objects of its cultural heritage are being destroyed, illicitly looted, excavated and subsequently trafficked out of Ukraine.

Let me provide some deeper insight into the cultural heritage protection in times of conflict in Ukraine. I’d like to present three on-going cases on Euromaidan protests, annexation of Crimea and Russia’s military intervention in Donbas.


It is deeply symbolic that great Nelson Mandela ended his earthly life exactly at the time, when Kyiv EuroMaidan protests were multiplying their first barricades on the other continent in the heart of Europe. It is as if the Ukrainians took up the symbolic light of Dignity and Rights.

Euromaidan began when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a treaty with the European Union. The peaceful movement protesting the widespread corruption and restrictions on human rights and freedoms, turned into the project of complete renewal of the state and the system of power, and has received a name of the Revolution of Dignity. Strategically, the country turned its back to the communist past and turned its face toward the civilized countries by launching the decolonization process. According to American analyst Paul Goble’s evaluation of Euromaidan, a new nation was born in Ukraine, with intrinsic political belief in democracy and liberty.

Case study – Maidan

In January 2014, a number of cultural institutions, including the National Art Museum, the Kyiv City Museum, the Parliamentary Library, archives of the National Academy of Sciences and a large number of architectural and historic monuments, located in the downtown of Ukraine’s capital, found themselves at the epicenter of street battles between the riot police and protestors. The cultural heritage, as well as the people became the hostages of the escalating political standoff.

Most cultural property survived due to DRM strong leadership and capacity. Some, as the Kyiv City Museum, lost a part of its collections looted by riot police.

It is important to note that the Ukrainian Committee of the Blue Shield was founded in that ‘winter on fire’ as a public response to the crises. The ICBS Ukraine and ICOM-Ukraine activists coordinated efforts between museums, libraries and archives workers, members of public organizations and volunteers to prevent vandalism and looting, provocations and damage to cultural property in times of mass protests and violence.

They managed to stop a chaotic wave of damaging the Soviet-era monuments in Kyiv and helped to clean up storage rooms and evacuate the Kyiv City Museum collections.

The cultural activists provided 24-hour monitoring and patrol in the capital’s downtown.

They initiated activity of an expert group to protect cultural property from looting and vandalism at the official presidential residence Mezhyhirya and transported its artefacts for temporary storage in the National Art Museum. Blue Shield Ukraine was also communicating with its international colleagues, providing them with information on the events and getting advice, expertise, and support.


In January 2014 a few museums and NGOs launched a joint project – the Maidan Museum initiative – to preserve artefacts displaying in different ways the unprecedented movement for freedom and dignity. Now, it’s a state-run institution I’m working in, entitled the National Memorial Complex to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum. It is addressing challenges and possibilities in presenting conflicted history, healing trauma, cultural heritage protection in times of crises, provide post-conflict dialogue and national reconciliation.


After the Revolution of Dignity Ukraine lost its territorial integrity as Russian Federation annexed Crimea and was engaged in occupation of Ukraine’s Eastern regions which were declared by the separatist Quasi-governments as independent republics in spring of 2014. Over 13,000 people killed in this non-declared hybrid war, and over  1.5 million people internally displaced from occupied Donbas and Crimea.

Ukraine lost all its cultural property on the peninsula, including the ancient city of Tauric Chersonese nicknamed the “Ukrainian Pompeii”, founded in the 5th century B.C., and its Chora in Sevastopol, which was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013. This large classical archeology site on the Black Sea suffers from structural damage due to surrounding modern development.

As of January 1, 2014 on the Crimean peninsula there were 14 thousand cultural monuments, 54 museums, 300 thousand museum objects, six historical and cultural reserves. In a short period of time, by the end of 2014, a regulatory framework was issued in the Russian Federation, which made it possible to intergrate the Crimean cultural heritage in Russia's legal field.

2018 UNESCO’s report on the situation in the annexed Crimea notes gross violations by the Russian authorities in protecting cultural heritage in Crimea. According to the Ministry of Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine, the Russian Federation actively destroys authentic monuments under the guise of ‘conservation works’.

For example, the Khan’s Palace in the city of Bakhchisaray, a 16th century monument built with Ottoman and Italian influences that served as the main political, religious, and cultural center of the Crimean Tatar people during the reign of the Crimean Khans, is reported to be destructed. In fact, instead of the conservation work, this site was simply repaired by a construction team with no experience on cultural sites, in a manner that erodes its authenticity and historical value. Its original oak beams and handmade roof tiles were replaced, the murals were damaged. This is another example of how the very identity of the Crimean Tatars is being threatened.

The destruction of the Mithridates stairs was also recorded, the fall of the columns in the ancient city of Panticapaeum (now Kerch), as well the collapse of part of the vault of the southern gate of the Yeni-Cale fortress because of the intensive car traffic over the newly constructed Kerch bridge from Russia.

Despite the rules of international law, unsanctioned archaeological excavations were carried out on the peninsula and artefacts were exported out from its territory to Russia and black markets. From 2014 to 2018, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation issued more than 90 permits for archaeological excavations. More than a million artifacts were excavated during the construction of the Kerch Bridge connecting the peninsula with Russia. Crimean Tatars burial grounds and over 90 historical sites were demolished to construct the Tavrida Highway, which leads to this bridge.

Black archaeologists are a major threat to the monuments there. For example, in December 2018, the FSB Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation branch in Crimea, preventing the illicit circulation of cultural property, seized and handed over to the Central Museum of Tauris a collection of 200 artefacts valued at $ 2 million.

Crimean artefacts and Ukrainian museum collections have been transferred to Russia to be showcased at exhibitions celebrating Russia’s own cultural heritage.

In 2016, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow opened the Aivazovsky exhibition, which included 38 artworks from the Aivazovsky Museum in the Crimean town of Feodosia.

In April 2018 “The Golden Horde and Black Sea. Lessons from the Genghis Empire” exhibition opened at the Kazan Kremlin Museum Reserve, featuring a unique exhibit – a stone-carved framing of a well dated 13th – 14th centuries from collection of the Yalta Museum of History and Literature in Crimea.

The ongoing case of the disputed Crimean Skythian gold artefacts is an interesting example. The exhibition “The Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea” went on view at the Allard Pierson Museum in February when Crimea was still part of Ukraine. The Dutch museum was lent 565 pieces from four Crimean museums and 19 pieces from a Kyiv museum for the exhibition. The dispute between Ukraine and Russia “Where the collection should be returned” has begun after the annexation of the peninsula. In December 2016, the District Court of Amsterdam ruled that all the exhibits should be transferred to Ukraine, as ‘only sovereign states can claim cultural heritage’ and the annexation of the Crimea to Russia had been declared illegal by the United Nations and other international bodies. Ukrainian authorities welcomed the decision, but the Crimean museums soon filed an appeal. The Amsterdam Court of Appeal postponed the delivery of the verdict in the case of return of exhibits from Crimea.

All this prompted Ukraine to approach joining the Second Protocol of the Hague Convention. The Bill on this was submitted by Ukraine’s president to parliament this month.


The military conflict in Eastern Ukraine since spring 2014 is another vivid case of a major threat to cultural institutions and heritage sites there. 6 years of severe military conflict resulted in considerable loss of human lives and cultural heritage, intensive refugee and humanitarian crisis. The mostly affected by military actions (bombarding, taking military positions, making trenches etc.) are historical monuments, museums, cultural centers, and archaeological sites.

But states are not the only perpetrators of crimes related to the cultural property. There is a growing trend when such offences are committed by non-state actors, including criminal, armed and terrorist groups. They target the objects of cultural heritage and attempt to rewrite history, erase whole chapters from the collective memory of people and regions.

For example, the Center for Contemporary Art and a Platform for Cultural Initiatives “Isolatsia”, housed on the territory of the former Insulation Materials Factory in Donetsk, was captured, robbed and undermined by the pro-Russian separatists. The Donetsk Museum of the World War II was attacked by militants with the aim of appropriation of weapons and military equipment for their further use against the Ukrainian armed forces. The militants of the self-declared tates of DNR and LNR hijacked a number of tanks from the monuments.

There is a large number of museums, archaeological sites, and monuments which are in the epicenter of military conflict. One of them – Savur Mohyla, the WWII memorial obelisk collapsed after enduring weeks of heavy shelling.

The building of the Luhansk Local Lore Museum was also damaged in artillery fire. Currently Ukraine has no access to the occupied territory and information in order to make a damage assessment.

Before the occupation of the eastern regions, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture officials visited the endangered museums and sites and advised their directors to close exhibitions and take safety precautions and enact emergency planning. The Ministry informed the regional state administrations on urgent measures for preservation of cultural property, strengthening protection of cultural heritage, worked out recommendations on priority measures for preserving collections and preparing for evacuation.

The Donetsk Local Lore Museum ignored the recommendations and in August 2014 its thirty galleries were damaged by 8 shells, and most collections were reported to be lost. Slide Losi It is amazing how, practically under fire, local residents helped the museum staff to save valuable items. Local communities quickly self-organized and side by side with museum staff removed the exhibits a safer place. Interesting, that by saving museum property the volunteers were healing themselves in that complicated environment, admitting that when working they stop listening to explosions and propaganda.


In 2014 a working group of museum experts was formed on a volunteer basis at the Ministry of Culture. Its main functions included monitoring the situation in the endangered regions, communicating with local authorities and directors of museums and heritage places, developing instructions and documents, evacuation plans, recommendations and strategies.

As a member of this working museum rescue group, I must admit that we had not enough knowledge, experience and resources to provide our mission systematically and skillfully enough. We looked forward to any opportunity in developing our individual and institutional capacities, in uniting emergency preparedness and response efforts on local and national levels, creating a network of experts and volunteers, and getting support from our foreign partners.

This great help was provided by international institutions and colleagues. First Aid to Cultural Heritage training courses, workshops, consultations, discussions and conferences organized by ICCROM, Smithsonian Institution, Prince Clause Fund, and supported by many partners in Italy, Netherlands, USA, Moldova, Ukraine including US Embassy in Ukraine, and Fulbright Program, helped us obtain broader knowledge on various aspects of disaster risk management to work out strategies and plans to reduce risks of damage to cultural heritage, to implement successful policies and efforts into our practice, to build capacities and strengthen communities to protect our cultural heritage. A number of workshop based on the ICCROM’s methodology was held in Ukraine.



It happened that International legal regulation of protection and restitution of cultural property have proved to be ineffective in protecting the occupied cultural values in Crimea and areas of armed conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk regions as the concept of internationalized conflict is not enshrined in no international treaty with International Humanitarian Law, such qualification will be exclusive doctrinal and will not add any additional means of protection artifacts of the occupied and annexed territories.

Thus in order to be effective in the response to emergency challenges for cultural heritage in Ukraine, to prevent the destruction, trafficking, looting and smuggling of cultural property during conflicts we have to:

- Stress on responsibility of states for the protection of cultural heritage according to international laws, their commitments and obligations.  
- Create inventories of cultural property and other items of historical, cultural and religious importance, which have been illegally transferred from armed conflict areas, notably from territories under foreign occupation, for ensuring their safe return to the countries of origin in the future. 
- Encourage efforts of all jurisdictions, national and international, and call for a close cooperation of law enforcement and customs agencies in investigations, prosecutions, seizure and confiscation as well as the return, restitution or repatriation of trafficked cultural property. 
-  Proactively cooperate in cultural heritage crime cases; liaising with auction houses and museums to track down objects originating from war-affected areas and to prevent the exhibition of the artefacts from occupied territories. 
- Learn more and exchange international experience in cultural heritage protection and provide systematic consultations with foreign partners and training courses in cultural emergency response.

- Develop teams of cultural heritage experts for rapid actions in complex crisis. 

In conclusion I would like to stress that in the last seven years Ukrainian cultural heritage was severely endangered by mass protests, annexation of its territory and military conflict in eastern occupied regions.

This particular moment in time displays a critical need for Ukrainian cultural heritage professionals and activists to gain new skills in empowering and inspiring governmental and local leadership, to exchange knowledge and experience with their international colleagues, to create spaces and opportunities for Ukrainian citizens to be not just spectators, but participants in the ideas and questions that shape and protect art and history, and the past and the future.

Why is this important? As Corine Wegener stated, “The choice is ours. If we… continue to act as individuals and function within a variety of discrete organizations, we will almost certainly fail the next time colleagues in a war-torn country need us. However, if we unite … we can make our voices heard and perhaps even be influential enough to prevent the ’next time’”.