Cultural 'first aid': Dutch funding for local expertise

by Dheera Sujan

Most of us watched it on TV with bated breath. Those who didn’t turn their heads away at the moment of the explosion would have seen a giant cloud of dust and then huge pieces of sand-coloured stone falling in slow motion to the ground. The sharper eyed would have seen that they weren’t just boulders collapsing, but pieces of statuary. They were the custodians of Bamiyan – giant Buddhas who had watched from their home in the cliffs centuries of Afghan history roll by.

It was a moment of pain forl even those who are not fans of monuments.

The Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan because they could. Just like the Serbs bombing the library of Sarajevo, destroying priceless irreplaceable manuscripts. Coalition bombs shattered the museum buildings housing the great collections of Kabul and Baghdad. Looters did the rest.

During times of conflict, culture is a target. Whether deliberate or incidental, culture is the first to go and often the last thing on anyone’s mind. Yet when a part of a country’s culture goes, it is the entire global community that is impoverished.

Most aid organisations who deal with emergencies don’t focus on cultural loss. Usually their first concern is loss of life and livelihood. But there’s one Dutch organisation which did feel that someone needed to do something. And indeed, it seemed only natural that the organisation was the Prince Claus Fund, which was set up by Queen Beatrix’s late husband Prince Claus to support culture all over the world.

Hope and direction
They created the Cultural Emergency Response, or CER, a kind of “cultural first aid.”
Els van der Plas is director of the Prince Claus Fund: “We feel that culture is a basic need and we think that rescuing culture can give people a sense of hope and direction.” This is how the CER works: A disaster happens somewhere in the world and the Prince Claus Fund, using its extensive global network, locates the cultural monuments or artefacts most in danger. They then submit the project proposal to a committee which must make its yea or nay decision within 48 hours. Then money – a maximum limit of 35,000 euros for any single project – is dispatched. People are located on the ground who can do the necessary work to restore or at least stabilize the endangered building so it doesn’t disintegrate any further. A pre-condition is that the project is finished within six months.

Astonishing response
Els van der Plas says that they always receive an astonishing response from locals who themselves are usually suffering personally from the effects of the disaster: “People help with all their force and energy because they think it’s important to rescue a library or guard an important museum, because it gives them a sense of place. It is who they are, their identity. They get hope and respect when you save a mosque or church that’s theirs.”

CER has a diverse range of projects around the world. In Nablus, for example, the Israeli army widened roads and so destabilized the foundations of several old mansions nearby. CER contributed a small sum to help an architect steady – most threatened foundations. It served to buy more time to gather more resources for a full restoration.

In Morocco, CER funded the rebuilding of a mosque destroyed by an earthquake, and was gratified to see the building become once again, not just a place of worship but also a community centre.

Perhaps one of their most curious projects is in Afghanistan, a country where destruction of culture has taken place on an immense scale. Not only from more than two decades of conflict and a wilfully destructive five-year reign by the Taliban, but also because of wide scale looting and the illegal digging up and smuggling of treasures. Now the massive scale of urban rebuilding is damaging or destroying some of the country’s most beautiful old buildings.

The CER partnered here with the Aga Khan Trust to fund the restoration of a synagogue in Heart, damaged by flood. The Jewish community is long gone from Afghanistan but the beauty of the building is undeniable. It’s also a beautiful metaphor for tolerance: a Western and a Muslim organisation collaborating with primarily Muslim workers together to rebuild a Jewish synagogue in a Muslim country where the Jews are gone – so that their history may remain.

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