Preserving Cultural Heritage On-the-Ground: Interview with Aparna Tandon

Preserving Cultural Heritage On-the-Ground: Interview with Aparna Tandon

. 8 min read

Aparna Tandon is Senior Program Leader at ICCROM, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. There she works to reduce heritage disaster risk and leads its flagship initiative, First Aid and Resilience for Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis. Tandon has also led emergency responses and in-crisis training in ten different countries, including most recently Ukraine in 2022. Additionally, she has authored several publications and handbooks on cultural heritage preservation.

In Spring 2022, you presented a methodology on how to preserve cultural heritage, specifically for Ukraine. What did that strategy for protecting Ukraine’s cultural heritage entail? How, if at all, has the war changed how cultural preservation is done in Ukraine since you started working there?

We had been working in Ukraine since 2014. That's when the Maidan protests broke out. We had just conducted a training where one of our trainees, who was a museum director in that Maidan area, managed to evacuate his collections, because he had taken the training, and he could predict that the protests could turn ugly or violent. He sought the help of the army there, and he managed to evacuate the first floor of his museum, the ground floor where an angry mob could have gone in and stormed [the building]. The museum next door, which was ironically the Lenin cultural center, where we recently held our training, was looted. And this, I think, is telling: that if people are prepared, and if they see the warning signs, then they can work preemptively. They can proactively protect heritage. So that's one aspect of it.

When we went on the ground—when I say we, I mean ICOMOS, which is the International Council on Monuments and Sites—it was a joint decision by them and ICCROM [the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property]. We went together at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. ICCROM is an intergovernmental organization, and governments are, we can say, representatives of member states. If they ask us for health [or] technical advice, we have to provide it. That was the background in which we carried out this mission. And the purpose was to identify what the emergent needs [were]. So we have to really separate out the preexisting conditions [from] what is happening now. We have to have a baseline, somewhere to start with. So what was there before—that's not something that we would comment on.

But now that we are going there, we see some emergent risks. One of the things was that there is [a] risk of sporadic attack in Kyiv [and] in other places. So in those initial days, [museums and heritage places] were putting [down] sandbags, taking down exhibits, putting things in storage, [and] evacuating. But then they realized that there [was] no place to go. Many of the museums have aging infrastructure. They have other risks: the fire risk, the flood risk, the war, the armed conflict. The fear of attack is so imminent, and [it] is the perceived risk. But other risks are not so visible. So our job was to make sure that they're also aware of these other risks, because as the whole country is focusing on protecting itself during this armed conflict, there are very little resources available to manage other risks to heritage, and heritage would [otherwise] be left untreated and unattended.

Our strategy focused on, one, how would you assess what's going on [in] the situation? You have to have some ability to be able to assess risks on an ongoing basis, assess damage on an ongoing basis, [and] calculate costs. Then, you need some people to deploy on the ground and work in hazardous conditions. We're not talking about going to a museum [on] a normal day. We're talking about braving air raids, virtually working with others without electricity [and] water, and then trying to think, how [are we] going to protect this heritage? But how many [people] can do so? They have to be physically fit to do work. This is not the only thing. Going out in places that have been booby trapped, that have land mines, or that have been attacked, and working in those conditions is also another aspect. The country is [at] war.

At that time, from July onwards, there was a mass exodus. There was that problem also. In that scenario, we brought out [our] strategy. I want to make the distinction that the strategy was not for normal circumstances of preservation, because who are we to tell Ukrainians how to manage or build their strategies? Our job was to go and understand by meeting the professionals, by meeting the government, by meeting representatives of different cultural institutions, what are the emergent needs? What are the challenges that they're facing? And what could be the possible way forward based on our experience of working during crisis situations elsewhere? But then also respecting the particular conflict context of Ukraine—the cultural context, [the] social context, [the] pre-war or pre-armed conflict baseline. Because you can't expect them to suddenly have very high standards during armed conflict if, previously, they had some problems. We don't say “go buy the highest quality materials” or something, which is so out of reach.

You helped train locals on preservation techniques through the Teamwork for Integrated Emergency Management and workshops you delivered in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and Iraq. Can you speak more about what those education efforts entailed, and why they are important for heritage preservation?

The effort that we try to make is [preventive], and most of our work is about proactive action. We are looking at risk-prone countries, and we are offering training there. But often what happens is that, just like when the doctor tells you [to] take care of yourself, you need to have a walk, you need to control your blood pressure—you do not follow the doctor. So sometimes, people only realize the value of the training that we offer when they are in distress, or [their] community is in [a] crisis situation. Then they say, “Oh, we have this problem. How do we deal with this? Or how do we prevent future risks?” So one [effort is] trying to take proactive actions.

I can give you an example. In Pakistan, we were seeing that there [was] a problem [with] the rivers, the Indus River especially. Because of the deviation of the river, there have been red flags raised about Mohenjo-daro, the World Heritage Site, and how it is vulnerable to flooding. We also know that climate change is [affecting] South Asia as a region. Looking at all the data that is available from different data sets—like INFORM, which is one of the risk indexes World Bank maps impacts [with]—we can really understand trends. We can see which regions [are] now highly affected by climate change. Plus there are other underlying systemic risks and vulnerabilities that make heritage more exposed. Understanding all that, we try to [curate] our training on the basis that people on the ground should have the ability to make those critical decisions in the time of crisis or before [a] crisis. [They should know] how to safeguard heritage, which heritage to safeguard, [and] how to prioritize.

But that doesn't happen too often. As I said, it's only after, [for example], the war in Syria [that] we have funding available to do something. Now, their years of war have eroded capacity. For example, there are no highly qualified professionals. There are some people in Syria who know how to stabilize or how to recover, [but] they are working in extremes, in an environment where resources are really, really scarce. They don't have money to buy food or anything. But then they're also left with populations displaced in a war. Many talented people leave that country. [The country] also needs other people, other professionals or young people, to be trained. So our training is very skill-based. It's about transferring those skills of quickly stabilizing heritage in a crisis situation or controlling the damage. Some of it is also about long-term recovery and building that critical mass of people who can then lead recovery.

Before [a] crisis, we try to build national teams that can lead disaster risk management. In peacetime, they can actively develop early warning systems [and] carry out risk mitigation at heritage places. And in times of crisis, they're able to set up interagency coordination mechanisms, working with the army and everybody and trying to respond so as to contain damage. They can respond. They should have those abilities. And they should be able to involve local people and respect them. This is the broad range of training that we have offered. In Syria, [for example], we train young engineers for doing damage and risk assessment, as well as carrying out 3D documentation of things that had been destroyed by the war. This was very important, because at that point in Aleppo, the young people felt that very soon, there [would be] a wave of development which [would] just wipe away the old buildings. So, we [adjust] the training according to those needs in a crisis situation. Our effort is to win this war, be more proactive, and build or develop capacities before a disaster can strike.

In a recent interview, you spoke about how there are rarely enough funds for cultural heritage preservation globally. How do you or other conservation organizations decide how to distribute your finite funds and experts to the many conflicts and disasters happening in the world today?

First of all, the funds are not sufficient. We are not part of the international humanitarian aid system. Since culture is not mainstream, although the framework for disaster risk reduction does recognize cultural heritage as an important dimension and an important aspect for which governments must provide risk reduction or preparedness, this is not there in practice. Very few countries have included concerns for cultural heritage in their disaster risk management systems, or their national or local policies. I could say Italy is one of [those] countries, and Germany and France are now [that] they have included concerns for heritage in their civil protection system. [That] is good, and that will really take off some of the burden. So that's one aspect—the mainstreaming [of] it in policies. National frameworks for disaster risk management crisis response [are] one very important way to do that.

[The second] thing is that, as I said, we are trying to gather evidence on how risk management [and] preventive action pays [off]. We had a course in Croatia, I think a storage reorganization course that ICCROM offered, where a simple measure was taken in one of the museums with very big clay pots. In the storage shelves, which were open, they put [up] a rope to restrain [the pots] if there [were] a shock. I'm talking about archeological clay pots: Greek, Roman—very important. The museums that had [restrained the pots from falling] saved [them]. The museum which had not done it had maximum breakage, because the objects from the shelf fell on the ground. [They] just needed to put [up a rope that cost] three euros. That's, I think, more [along the lines] of advocacy, and more of that kind of concrete evidence. That's why we are doing so much applied research.

Right now we have a project going on [called] Net Zero: Heritage for Climate Action, in five “innovation sites.” [There,] we are tapping into indigenous knowledge [and] community health knowledge to develop small actions to reduce risk. To give you a concrete example, in Sudan [and] Uganda, people are planting trees across the riverbank using native species and local health knowledge to mitigate the risk of flooding. In Jodhpur, India, they're using indigenous knowledge of the local architecture to develop a heat action plan for the city. That's another way to divide your resources, because this pays [off] in the end, to show this proof of concept or evidence from the ground.

Then the other strategy that we have adopted is to train people, but then give them seed grants to train interns, train local volunteers [and] local teams, just to multiply [the] cascade effect. That way, we leverage our network. In Sudan, we received a request. They said, “Help us to do a situation analysis and understand which sites could be at risk, and also [a] cost estimate.” So we came up with a cost estimate. We said for 79 sites, they [would] need 11 million, and [provided their] ranking and prioritization. But that workshop was not done by me. It was done by people that we had trained in Egypt, who spoke Arabic and are very good trainers, [that] have been working with us elsewhere. [They] have since then created an NGO. The core business of that NGO is to provide support for disaster risk management and crisis response for heritage. After the training, many such NGOs have been created around the world. They become our partners. Our trainees become our researchers, our resource people, and our partners. That's how we are trying to [preserve cultural heritage].

William Mao spoke with Aparna Tandon on Nov. 6, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.