Interview with Corine Wegener about the 1954 Hague convention and the US Committee of the Blue Shield working for Ukraine since the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022
April 18, 2023
The University of Kansas, M.A. Political Science; M.A. Art history.
University of Nebraska at Omaha, B.G.S., Political Science.
Wegener, Corine. “Rescuing heritage in’natural’disasters 1.” Cultural Heritage in Modern Conflict. Routledge, 2023. 267-288.
Wegener, Corine. “Museums in Crisis: Helping Our Colleagues and Their Museums in Need.” Museum International 67.1-4 (2015): 132-137.
Wegener, Corine. “The 1954 Hague Convention and preserving cultural heritage.” Archaeological Institute of America 19 (2010).
About Corine Wegener
Corine Wegener is the Director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), an outreach program for the preservation of cultural heritage in crisis situations. SCRI’s work has included projects in Haiti, Mali, Nepal, Iraq, Syria, and most recently Ukraine. Wegener has over 20 years of experience as an art historian, curator, and emergency responder for cultural heritage in crisis. As a U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer, she served on multiple deployments, including NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia (1997-1998) and as Arts, Monuments, and Archives Officer for the 352nd Civil Affairs Command in Iraq (2003-2004). As founding past president of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, Wegener helped lead the successful campaign for U.S. ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention. As part of an MOU between the Smithsonian and the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, she co-leads the Army Monuments Officer Training (AMOT) training program. She is a principal investigator for the Conflict Observatory, a U.S. Department of State effort to document war damage to cultural heritage in Ukraine. Wegener has a BGS in Political Science from the University of Nebraska Omaha and MA degrees in Political Science and Art History from the University of Kansas.
The Center would like to thank Cori for taking the time to answer our questions, and more importantly for the inspiring work that she is doing day in and day out. This interview was edited and supplemented by Kameron-Jai Keel (NYLS, Class of 2024).
Q: Regarding cultural targeting as a weapon of war, it’s clear that Russia is attacking monuments and cultural sites of Ukraine as a way to erase Ukrainian national identity. What can countries like the US (and other allies) do to aid Ukraine in the protection of their national sites? How does the fact that Russia is not a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention affect any response? Is the US Committee of the Blue Shield involved in any way?
The US Department of State Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is sponsoring the Conflict Observatory ,a resource that collects evidence that Russia perpetrated War Crimes in Ukraine. The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, also known as the SCRI, is responsible for the cultural heritage portion of the project and is working with the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the University of Maryland Center for International Development and Conflict Management.
SCRI is also working with the Cultural Emergency Response of the Netherlands and the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative in Ukraine by providing funds for on the ground documentation and emergency response missions to museums and other cultural institutions. We are coordinating closely with the Ukrainian embassy to the US and the Ministry of Culture.
There are also a number of other US museum initiatives that have aided Ukraine’s museums since the renewal of the conflict in February, such as the Ukrainian Museum in New York and the US National Holocaust Museum.
US Blue Shield is providing advice and assistance whenever possible, along with Blue Shield International.
Q. In your work with the Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative, have you experienced governments or local leaders being reluctant to prepare cultural monuments and collections on the eve of conflict or disaster because they fear it seems defeatist or may lower public morale? What kind of difficulties do cultural heritage workers/professionals in areas of conflict have in getting resources or help from their governments?
C: In a word, yes. Waiting until the eve of a conflict is a common problem. Preparing by evacuating collections in public view may be considered to be a lack of confidence in the government and the country’s ability to defend itself. This happened with the Iraq National Museum and the staff sent colleagues home and evacuated to secret storage magazines within the museum. As you may imagine, a similar situation was true in Ukraine as the government was openly declaring that Russia would not invade.
Well, everyone has a hard time getting resources for cultural heritage, even in peacetime, so the situation is so much worse when the government is distracted by large scale military operations and attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Q. It has been said that UNESCO branding of a world heritage site may come with unintended negative consequences. These might include over-tourism, targeting for looters, or cultural targets in war. What are your thoughts on this?
C: UNESCO branding as a WHS probably does have many negative consequences as you mention. I have not made a particular study of it but I do know that the WH program receives the bulk of UNESCO funding when perhaps we should be looking to fund the other treaty programs such as the 1954 Hague Convention emergency fund, etc.
Q. How can we reconcile what many believe is the rightful return of objects with the potential safety risks of returning an object to a place that sees frequent conflict/instability?
C: I don’t believe the current stability of a country should be a factor in returning someone’s rightful property. If someone steals your car, the authorities can’t use the excuse that they should not return it to you because you live in a bad neighborhood and are likely to have it stolen again. You just can’t hold title to stolen property. This may be solved with long-term loan agreements and other protection arrangements, but only in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
Q: I understand you worked as an Arts, Monuments, and Archives officer in the US Army and assisted with the aftermath of the 2003 looting of the Iraq National Museum. Do institutions like the Smithsonian assist, for instance, law enforcement with investigations about possible looted works?
C: Yes, the Smithsonian is part of the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee  chaired by the U.S. Department of State Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau. The CHCC also includes law enforcement organizations that deal with illicit trafficking and we often help agents find expertise to identify potentially looted objects trying to enter the US.
Q. What cultural heritage is most at risk within the United States? While the US has ratified the 1954 Hague Convention, what actions or structures has the US government put in place to fulfill their obligations under the treaty? Why, in your opinion, has the US not joined in the first and second protocols?
C: I’d say the most at-risk cultural heritage in the US is anything located near the coasts and other bodies of water where the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events are becoming worse every day.
I’d say the US has made quite a lot of progress in implementing the 1954 Hague Convention since ratification in 2009. The U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command is partnering with the Smithsonian to help recruit and train the next generation of Monuments Officers. We just concluded an in person training in August and the future looks bright for the program.
The lack of US ratification of the 1st Protocol has much to do with the strength of the antiquities lobby in the US to lobby against it. I think we may have a shot at ratification of the Second Protocol at some point in the next few years.
Q. Is “heritage at risk” always a factor in marking or preserving heritage in the US today?
C: Not sure. I don’t do that much work with how US sites are designated or marked
Q: In the growing field of cultural heritage as a profession and in the rise of public interest in world heritage – do you foresee greater reliance/enforcement on treaties such as the Hague Convention? In your opinion, how well do some countries uphold their obligations under the Hague Convention?
C: Many countries have a long way to go to fully implement 1954 Hague, however it is still the best instrument we have on the international front. Just think how few legal instruments and frameworks there are about damage to cultural heritage from naturally-caused disasters! In most cases heritage is not even considered in disaster risk management plans locally or nationally. Even when it is considered, CH is usually deferred in the response plan and must wait until the recovery phase.
Q. What role do you see lawyers working in within the field of cultural heritage preservation? Do you work with attorneys in your position at the Smithsonian or initiatives with the US Committee of the Blue Shield?
C: I don’t work much with attorneys at the Smithsonian other than to approve my contracts with heritage institutions and professionals. We do consult legal advice in our work for the Conflict Observatory. The current president and co-founder of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield IS a lawyer, Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, so we have been lucky as we do need her expertise on a regular basis! I do think lawyers are a critical part of the field of cultural preservation.
Q. How can students and aspiring heritage professionals get experience working in the field before they join the working world?
C: The old-fashioned way. Internships, fellowships, and joining groups like the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Q. What is the intended purpose of the documentation that organizations like Heritage Emergency Response Initiative collect?
C: HERI’s documentation will be used to support salvage, stabilization and recovery efforts as well as provide evidence for potential accountability such as criminal prosecutions.
Q. What would happen if instead of funding for cultural heritage, donors contributed to a humanitarian organization such as the Red Cross?
C: I am asked that question frequently and my answer is, “Why can’t we have both?” I think it is a false choice and there are donor organizations that give funds for both causes. Culture is a human right and people deserve to receive humanitarian aid AND help saving their cultural heritage and identity.
Some Parting Thoughts:
the institutions created to preserve cultural heritage cannot work without the help of the public, regardless of the country to which you reside in, to continue to show interest, and educate themselves on their issues. Preserving cultural heritage is a continuation in the development of humanity. In a constant state of unprecedented times and times of war, current institutions look back to their predecessors such as the Hague Convention and its 1999 supplement to build a stronger defense of the disintegration of cultures due to looting, and antiquities trafficking in times of war.
Read More about the Hague Convention and Wartime trafficking:
- Hague Convention Abstract: Hague Convention:…Protection…in the Event of Armed Conflict, Getty (1954)
- UNESCO Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict | UNESCO (1999)
- Nemtsova, Anna How Russia Looted Ukraine’s Art Treasures , The Atlantic (2023)
- Fannen, Molly The looting of cultural heritage has been happening since the very existence of cultural heritage, it is not anything new, but what we see now is that looting has become highly organized – WCO (2016)
- Blumenthal, Ralph and Tom Mashberg, “The Army Is Looking for a Few Good Art Experts,” TNYT (Oct. 21, 2019), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/arts/design/new-monuments-men.html
- 1954 Convention of Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, also known as the Hague Convention. ↑
- Committee formed in 2006 for the prevention of destruction, damage and theft of cultural property in the time of war and natural disasters. ↑
- Supplements the original Hague convention. ↑
- Organizes locally orchestrated protection of cultural heritage that is under threat. ↑
- Initiative created to preserve cultural heritage in times of war and support post war recovery. ↑
- Ministries of Culture are responsible for cultural policy and and protection of a country’s heritage and expression. ↑
- Legally protected sites that have cultural, scientific, or some other form of significance. ↑
- Cultural Heritage Coordinating committee, CHCC, coordinates efforts to fight trafficking of antiquities, trafficking networks, and protect and preserve cultural history and combat looting. ↑
- Sites at risk because of decay, neglect, over-development or tourism ↑