Art and Architecture in Times of Conflict

British landscape painter Oliver Maughan explores the history of art and architecture being destroyed in times of war and conflict, emphasising the crucial need to protect and preserve cultural heritage.

In times of conflict, we become much more conscious of the political and social significance of art and architecture. Throughout history, cultural property has been stolen, damaged, or destroyed in the war, whether as a result of collateral damage, to be sold for funds, or even targeted in attempts to erase a people’s culture.

Months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its residents have been working hard to defend their country. Art and architecture have always been a major aspect of Ukrainian history, spirit, and identity, and threats to this cultural heritage are not taken lightly.

The National Museum in Lviv is the largest art museum in the country, dedicated to Ukrainian art in all forms. Before the war, it had 1,500 pieces on display, the other 97% of the collection in storage. A massive repository of Ukrainian arts and heritage, it is a priceless resource testifying to the nation’s long, rich and diverse cultural history.

Over the past weeks, workers have been ardently packing away and relocating its vast collection of paintings, sculptures, and artefacts to secret, safe spaces. In preparation for the threat of bombing and warfare experienced throughout the eastern regions of Ukraine, the museum has essentially become a shell, with scaffolds and plinths that previously held treasured artworks left empty.

Similar scenes can be witnessed throughout the city; galleries, museums, and churches have removed and relocated thousands of artworks and artefacts to secret locations.

Outdoors, care has also been taken to protect statues and architecture that cannot be moved. Photographs show fountain statues in Lviv’s main square wrapped in the flame-retardant fabric; scaffolding built around them to shield them against falling masonry. Stained glass windows of medieval churches have been sealed off and lined with shrapnel-proof material.

In the southern city of Odesa, the Fine Arts Museum is surrounded with razor wire to deter looters, its rooms emptied like in Lviv’s National Museum. Public statues have been covered, like the monument to Duke de Richelieu which peeks out from a mound of sandbags.

Throughout Ukraine are numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Lviv’s old town and Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Since the start of the war, UNESCO has taken action to safeguard Ukrainian cultural heritage.

UNESCO was founded in 1945 in response to the extensive destruction inflicted in the First and Second World Wars, seeking to encourage international cooperation to better protect and preserve universally valuable landmarks. Legally, sites are protected by international treaties, but in the chaotic context of war, a site’s safety cannot be guaranteed.

Throughout the ongoing Syrian Civil War, all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites have been damaged or destroyed. The ancient city of Palmyra, famous for its well-preserved and unique examples of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Islamic culture was targeted by ISIS, razing the Temple of Bel, Temple of Baal Shamin, Arch of Triumph, and columns in the Valley of the Tombs. Since Palmyra was taken back from ISIS, UNESCO has led the site’s restoration and recovery, including a $150,000 Emergency Safeguarding project.

However, ISIS’ destruction was severe and extended beyond Palmyra, choosing to systematically destroy cultural symbols and eliminate evidence of any non-Islamic history across the Middle East.

UNESCO labels the intentional destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine, attacks on culture in wartime, is not new.

In the context of the Syrian Civil War, ISIS’ motivations were ideological and financial, trying to erase non-Islamic culture and selling stolen artefacts to fund their terrorist activities. During the 2012 Islamist occupation of Timbuktu in Mali, occupiers destroyed parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, including Sufi shrines and multiple mausolea as they supposedly breached Sharia. During the Second World War, Nazis stole art for monetary gain and destroyed works owned by Jewish families in an attempt to eliminate the Jewish people and their culture.

In response to the destruction inflicted on Syria by ISIS, Irina Bokova, the then director-general of UNESCO said, ‘We are not just talking about stones and buildings. We are talking about values, identities, and belonging.’

This has a universal truth and clearly explains why the protection of cultural heritage in conflict matters.

Ukrainian curators and gallerists believe that the destruction of Ukrainian material culture, both intentional and collateral, is precisely what Putin wants.

Ihor Kozahn, director of Lviv’s National Museum, has expressed his fears that part of Russia’s goal is ‘destroying Ukraine’s cultural fabric’.

Taras Voznyak, director of Lviv National Art Gallery, theorises that ‘Putin knows that without art, without our history, Ukraine will have a weaker identity’ and the very purpose of the war was to ‘erase us and assimilate us’.

Olha Honchar, director of Ukraine’s Museum Crisis Center, emphasises that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine culture have been intentional, a tactic in their ‘precise aim of destroying our culture, as part of our identity, as something that distinguishes Ukraine from Russia’.

Lviv and Odesa have the limited gift of time, but other cities and towns in the east have been less fortuitous.

In Kharkiv, its main art museum’s windows were blown out, leaving 25,000 paintings exposed to freezing temperatures and snowfall for weeks. The stained-glass windows and nave of the city’s 17th-century century Assumption Cathedral has been damaged by shelling. The Ivankiv Museum of Local History near Kyiv was bombed, burning 25 paintings by the celebrated folk artist Maria Prymachenko. Other museums in Kyiv have been boarded up, their treasured works left inside as their caretakers had to evacuate.

However, the Ukrainian people have not faltered in the face of these attacks, instead of being further empowered and fuelled with a determination to save their cultural heritage.

In the months before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian museums were already preparing to relocate works to safer locations. The art rescue missions we have seen so far are large-scale collaborations between museums, archives, galleries, libraries, and cultural institutions around the country and with neighbouring nations, forming what appears to be one of the most comprehensive efforts at cultural preservation in our time.

The rallying of Ukraine and its allies to protect art and architecture for present and future generations truly shows how material culture is an extension of a people. To respect and protect culture is another way to fight for Ukraine, defying oppression and celebrating its unique history.