First Aid for Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites

Recently, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an intergovernmental organization based in Rome, Italy, joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution to teach an innovative international course in Washington, D.C., on the topic of first aid for cultural heritage in times of crisis.  

ICCROM is the only inter-governmental organization of its kind with a worldwide mandate to promote the conservation of all types of cultural heritage, both movable and immovable. A member state since 1971, the United States, through its various programs in the U.S. government, has supported ICCROM’s and other efforts in cultural preservation globally. Specifically the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and other programs through the State Department has been able support other countries in their efforts to reduce risk to cultural heritage before disasters strike, as well as to restore and reclaim cultural heritage after the damage has been done. Through this recent course, ICCROM, the Smithsonian, and their many partners including the State Department hope to build and enhance local and national capacities worldwide for protecting cultural heritage during and in the immediate aftermaths of disasters and other crises.

The fifth of its kind offered under the aegis of ICCROM’s Disaster Risk Management program, this First Aid Course (or FAC, as the organizers and participants call it) led more than 20 participants from 18 countries through several weeks of classroom instruction, practicums, site visits to local landmarks and institutions, and a final emergency simulation that challenged students to apply their new cultural heritage recovery knowledge and skills to a complex disaster scenario.

ICCROM’s FAC courses are both timely and necessary. As the last several years have shown, crises know few bounds when it comes to cultural heritage. If not targeted for looting or destruction out of a perverse nihilism and disdain for other cultures, as is the case in Syria, Iraq, and other areas of the Middle East menaced by ISIL and like-minded terrorists, cultural heritage may—out of sheer bad luck—end up in the paths of destructive wildfires, typhoons, and other storms, or within range of catastrophic earthquakes.

Architectural elements salvaged from collapsed temples in Patan Durbar Square in the aftermath of the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake await repair and reuse in temple restoration projects.[State Department photo]

ICCROM’s first aid course is based on the idea that cultural heritage recovery can help disaster-stricken communities overcome the trauma of loss and displacement by rescuing or safeguarding those ancient and historic places, objects, and traditions that provide comfort and reassurance and that are vital to social cohesion and communal identity. The principles instilled in the course curriculum align closely with many of the principles that guide humanitarian assistance, such as an emphasis on building local response capacity, respect for cultural diversity, sensitivity to local contexts, and a “do no harm” philosophy that seeks to prevent further damage to cultural heritage during its recovery.

Through this course and other initiatives underway worldwide, the cultural heritage community is making great strides in helping bridge that pre- and post-crisis cultural heritage recovery gap.

About the Author: Martin Perschler serves as the Program Director for the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and Cultural Heritage Center within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

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King Pratap Malla's Column in Kathmandu Durbar Square collapsed during the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake.
Posted by Martin Perschler
July 8, 2016


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