Evacuation drill teaches artifact preservation

When natural disaster or military conflict strikes, irreplaceable cultural heritage is put at risk.

Conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, as well as September’s fire at the Brazil National Museum, are just a few recent examples of events that have caused cultural workers and community volunteers to mobilize in an effort to rescue irreplaceable artifacts.

Brock Classics students got a taste of the work involved in a museum evacuation during a simulation run Friday, Nov. 30 by internationally-recognized expert Brian Daniels.

Museum evacuation exercise

In the safe room, Archaeology Ethics students, from left, Hannah Greczkowski, Bejamin Vaillancourt, Brian Abfal and Gloria Szylak receive the artifacts and check them against the inventory lists.

Daniels, who works with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center and Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI), has run museum evacuation training programs around the globe. He has worked on the ground in Iraq and trained local culture workers in Afghanistan and Syria to protect culturally significant artifacts.

In fact, the evacuation exercise Brock students participated in had just been done the day before in Mali for military personnel, disaster responders and heritage professionals.

Daniels and Associate Professor Elizabeth Greene staged a museum disaster in the Department’s archaeology workroom using ancient pottery sherds from the Cypriot Museum’s teaching collection.

“I’m very excited because we can use the Cypriot collection here,” said Daniels. “Usually we use fake artifacts for the first time in running these.”

After a presentation by Daniels on the history, process and principles of evacuating and protecting artifacts during a disaster, the class had just 20 minutes to develop their strategy to safely move all the artifacts from the workroom to the designated safe room.

Students then had 45 minutes to systematically inventory, package and transfer the artifacts. They were successful in moving all their artifacts to the safe room — a fundamental part of the exercise, but one that Daniels noted not all teams are able to complete. The exercise, he said, is designed to make participants feel stressed.

“In light of current political crises and recent catastrophes, this exercise provided students with hands-on experience in responding to a heritage emergency,” Greene said.

“Such scenarios reinforce the need for all museums to have management plans to safeguard the heritage under their stewardship, recognizing its value to local and global communities.”

In the debrief, Daniels complimented the students on their clear division of work and how well they worked as a team.

“The exercise demonstrated how many factors have to be considered when cultural heritage artifacts are being evacuated to a safe location,” said student Sarah Murray. “The plan that we created was detailed enough to initiate the evacuation process but flexible enough for us to adapt.”

The simulation exercise concluded a week of talks about the protection of cultural heritage during wartime. Students in CLAS 4P28/5V28 Archaeological Ethics have been exploring a range of ethical dilemmas about doing archaeology in the 21st century.

Topics have included the ownership of cultural heritage; looting and theft of antiquities; repatriation of heritage artifacts to source nations; preservation of heritage at risk; site preservation, reconstruction and tourism; and the rights and responsibilities of archaeologists in their host communities and within the broader discipline.

“In each case, we bring contemporary issues into the classroom setting,” says Greene, who also serves as Vice-President for Cultural Heritage of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The Penn Cultural Heritage Center provides a forum for discussion of the meaning of heritage and the roles of communities in heritage preservation. Daniels and the other members of SHOSI work closely with the Smithsonian Institution, as well as organize workshops focusing on emergency preservation and risk management.

SHOSI helped with the evacuation of the Ma’arrat al-Nu’man Museum in Afghanistan to Switzerland during the conflict of the early 2000s. In 2014, the group began training Syrian museum professionals in Turkey, as Syrian cultural monuments were being destroyed at an alarming rate. Cultural workers have been trained in documenting and protecting looted sites, such as the cuneiform tablets at Ebla, and in assisting knowledge transfer of traditional cultural practices among refugees.

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