Accessibility: Cultural Sites During Conflict

By Julianna Whalen

During periods of conflict, archaeological sites and museums have reduced accessibility due to site closure, safety concerns, and lower tourism numbers. Protecting artifacts became a global priority after ISIS looted and destroyed thousands of artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq (in Baghdad) in April 2003. Many museums sent artifacts away for safekeeping—protecting them on-site when necessary—and shuttered their doors: anything to keep the priceless heritage safe.

Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden. Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). Public domain.
Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden.
Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). 
Public domain

Since 2015, many of these museums have started to reopen. Syria’s National Museum of Damascus opened one wing in October of 2018, proudly displaying a restored version of the ISIS destroyed Lion of Al-Lat.1

In Iraq, the Mosul Museum’s reception hall temporarily reopened with a six-day contemporary art exhibition early in 2019; Return to Mosul featured themes of home, return, and conflict. The exterior of the museum building is heavily damaged, however, and visitors stayed bundled up while inside the exhibit. 2  

“U.S. Soldiers...make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq...” 
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro. 
Public Domain.
“U.S. Soldiers…make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq…”
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro.
Public Domain

While sites are often closed for protective or preservation purposes, that is not always the case. The ancient archaeological site of Ur (located in southern Iraq) served as the modern location for Tallil Air Base—meaning that all visitors to the site needed permission granted by United States forces.3 In February 2007, Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum was invited by Dr. al-Husseini (the Iraqi Director of Antiquities) to visit Iraq and conduct a condition/damage report on Ur. Al-Husseini, after refusing a search by United States forces, was forbidden to enter the site, despite his credentials.4 Because of this incident, Dr. Curtis created a very quick, surface level report rather than an in-depth analysis.  

Reduced tourism also plays a role in cultural site accessibility during times of conflict. Iraq’s Babylon, once a bustling tourist site, has closed its museum, souvenir shop, and post office due to continually low visitation.5 In Egypt, the 2011 revolution marked the beginning of a rampant decline in tourism. According to CEIC Data, 11.5 billion visitors entered Egypt in 2010…by 2016, that number dropped more than 50%.6 Only recently have tourism numbers began to climb again. Khaled el-Anany, Minister of Antiquities, hopes for a continued rise: “‘My wish is for 10 times the tourists we have now. Americans are still nervous about Egypt and the whole region.’”7 

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.
The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Plans for the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, and the Sphinx International Airport were delayed during Egypt’s unrest. With a budget of $1.1 billion, the Grand Egyptian Museum will be the largest archaeological museum in the world when it opens in late 2019 or 2020.8 

From closures to protect artifacts to military presence to reduced tourism, conflict related closures run the risk of damaging cultural heritage accessibility.

  1. Damascus Museum Reopens Featuring Millennia-old Lion
  2. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  3. Curtis, John. “Relations between Archaeologists and the Military in the Case of Iraq.” In Cultural Heritage, Ethics, and the Military, edited Stone Peter G., 192. Boydell and Brewer, 2011. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. In Iraq, A Race to Protect the Crumbling Bricks of Ancient Babylon 
  6. Egypt Visitor Arrivals 
  7. Can Egypt Convince the World That It Is Starting Over? 
  8. Ibid.