Today is International Museum Day (IMD).

It is a celebration of the importance of museums in cultural exchange, enrichment, cooperation and peace between peoples, says the International Council of Museums.

Despite their immense importance, museums are not immune to the effects of war. Throughout history, these priceless cultural sites and the heritage they contain have been targeted and damaged – often permanently destroyed.

Taiz National Museum, Yemen

The Taiz National Museum in Yemen, along with the majority of its valuable contents, was destroyed in a fire caused by shelling in February 2016.

Houthi rebels and government fighters, who have been waging a bloody civil war since 2014, have blamed each other for causing the blaze.

The museum housed manuscripts and copies of the 1,000-year-old Quran, as well as items belonging to the last Yemeni imam, Ahmed Hamid Al-Deen, such as ancient pistols and a turban.

The United Nations (UN) has reported that the eight-year conflict has caused significant damage to historic sites and monuments in Yemen, including the ancient Ottoman-era al-Owrdhi complex outside the Sanaa old town.

In a statement released in June 2015, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she was “deeply shocked” by the cultural destruction in Yemen.

“This destruction will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation and I reiterate my call on all parties to respect and protect cultural heritage in Yemen,” she said.

Mosul Cultural Museum, Iraq

In 2015, the world watched in horror as so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters obliterated the archaeological treasures of the Mosul Cultural Museum in Iraq with sledgehammers.

The destruction was part of the terror group’s campaign to erase the country’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage, which was later labeled a war crime by the UN.

Some 25,000 items from the museum’s library were burned by IS and the buildings themselves suffered colossal damage, including a 5.5-metre bomb crater in the ground.

Priceless historical artifacts have been looted by ISIS from the site and elsewhere in Iraq. These were then resold, often on international black markets, earning the terrorist group around $7 billion (6.65 billion euros).

Following an effort by France to raise tens of millions of dollars from international donors, a consortium was formed in 2018 to try to bring the museum back to life.

It hasn’t reopened yet.

Palmyra Museum, Syria

The Palmyra museum, founded in 1961, was partially destroyed after being hit by Russian and Syrian airstrikes in 2015. As in Iraq, IS fighters completed the rest, destroying and looting its contents.

The museum contained 12,000 artifacts, including mummies and ancient statues.

Although the number and nature of the looted antiquities remains unknown, a report by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Paris-based Syrian Society for the Protection of Antiquities revealed that 3,450 artifacts had been looted from the museum.

A total of 29 museums and places of worship have been damaged since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. According to the report, each has suffered vandalism, looting, bombing and destruction to some degree.

Chernihiv Regional History Museum, Ukraine – 2022

“[The museum] survived the Bolshevik bombings in 1918 and 1919. He survived World War II under the bombs of the German Nazis,” museum director Serhiy Laevsky said in a defiant Facebook post.

“The Nazi horde from Moscow came and destroyed a very beautiful and cozy building from the end of the 19th century – a monument of local history.”

Serhiy Shumylo, a researcher at the Institute of Ukrainian History in Kyiv, condemned the “deliberate and systematic destruction” of Ukrainian heritage by Russian forces, citing their heavy bombardment of the 1,300-year-old city of Chernihiv – which predates Moscow.

The Chernihiv Regional History Museum is just one culturally significant place affected by the 2022 war, according to UNESCO, four museums, 29 religious sites, 16 historical buildings and four monuments have been severely damaged or destroyed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Fortunately, however, many pieces were saved thanks to the actions of Ukrainian museum staff, who moved the artworks and exhibits to safety.

“It’s just the irony that we were saving Russian artists, paintings by Russian artists from their own nation. This is simply barbarism,” Maryna Filatova, head of the foreign arts department at the Kharkiv art museum, told Reuters in March.


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