A position paper
Katerina Zourou, Ph.D., and Stefania Oikonomou, MA
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This text is an invitation to explore what citizen engagement – and more broadly, humanity – is positively capable of doing to preserve cultural heritage in the face of a disaster, thus manifesting the value that citizens can bring in a fractured world. The authors, beyond political dichotomies, have faith in culture serving humanity for a better world and action-taking towards this direction is their sole motivation.
The action-taking dimension adopts the shape of participatory, often digital practices that bring together citizens, experts, academics and civil society organisations in the country and abroad, with the aim of contributing to healing the cultural heritage crisis in Ukraine.
Apart from the spirit and statements of solidarity that have been expressed, what we believe the Ukrainian experience has brought to the forefront of cultural heritage protection and preservation efforts is the willingness and ability of people to act immediately, cohesively and boldly. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, several narratives have resulted in blurring motivations, beliefs and finally action-taking. In this text, we present four issues that have manifested themselves and which may “block” action, as well as insinuate skepticism over the causality of initiatives undertaken.
Our overall intention is to stand firmly on the side of those who – in such challenging times – have decided to act to preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage. We strongly believe that their actions can pave the way for the establishment of a paradigm shift that can be beneficial to the world cultural heritage sector at large.
Undoubtedly, the lessons we have already learned from the Ukrainian cultural heritage case suggest the need for rapidity and preparedness to act before it is too late. Ignoring these signals will be a great omission on our part, and a terrible loss of initiative and capacity-building for the European cultural heritage organisations, institutions and citizens.
Our text is divided into two sections. Firstly, we present four main barriers that may result in inaction and negligence towards the preservation of Ukrainian cultural heritage. We then focus on the four incentives fostering bottom-up and citizen driven activities for the protection and preservation of Ukrainian cultural heritage during times of conflict.
Four hindrances in action-taking
We outline four main barriers that could lead to various degrees of inaction. In particular:
#1: Overexposure to distressing media sources, (possibly) making individual action appear insignificant. During crises, people often become overwhelmed by the intensity of the images and videos disseminated that make them feel paralysed and incapable of taking action to help those in need.
#2: Disruption as the new norm. As daily routines have been severely disrupted in Ukraine, regular communication (also impacting availability and engagement) is far from being guaranteed. In a recent discussion with a Ukrainian friend living abroad, the picture of daily life in Ukraine emerged, to remind us of the cruel truth about every-day routines in the country:
“Citizens are cleaning their cities from shelling, cooking for the army territory defense units and doing other humanitarian jobs in addition to their main jobs, combining this with care for small kids who aren’t in schools or kindergartens, which are closed. Air raids are more often now as well – (NB: two names of common friends) spent the whole night in the bomb shelter today, got out in the morning and another air raid started”. (personal email, 5/5/22)
Obviously, it is not a lack of willingness or engagement from Ukrainians in the country that one can observe; the indescribably harsh living conditions make contact persons in Ukraine unavailable, thus impacting the possibilities to sustain initiatives with the support of volunteers outside the country. Put in our friend’s words:
“It’s just hard for those in Ukraine to allocate time for [participatory, crowd] initiatives now. In addition, those outside Ukraine are scattered around and it’s hard to know who is where and whether they have capacity to still work on this now and they aren’t in Ukraine, so can’t really collect local data, etc.” (personal email, 5/5/22)
#3: An ongoing situation with an unknown end and the impact of (in)action. The ongoing status of the conflict is seen by some as a game-stopper. We have been told that “[the conflict in Ukraine is] something that is going on right now. We haven’t seen the impact, and we don’t know when it’s going to end up”. (personal conversation)
This type of statement can take the form of inertia – the evolving situation “imposing” a lack of action. Seen from an opposite angle, conflicts can last for decades, with some still unsolved; to take the example of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, or events in Syria. Waiting too long can be understood as an excuse to convey unwillingness to take action.
#4: A “highly” sensitive matter. Although the Ukrainian war poses an immediate threat to Ukrainian cultural heritage, presenting and labeling it as a sensitive issue can prevent people from dealing with it. Political views on any armed conflict trap citizens in political debates, impacting people’s reactions or (inaction) to it. On the contrary, it is imperative to focus on what really matters, which is safeguarding the cultural patrimony of a human society devastated by war beyond dichotomies.
Four incentives for action-taking
Four motivations that foster action for the benefit of cultural heritage protection and preservation are presented. Specifically:
#1: Technology and the diaspora. People fleeing war are always faced with harsh living conditions which are difficult to deal with. The Ukrainian conflict and its refugees are certainly not an exception to this rule. Even though communication with people and cultural institutions in the country is not fully operative, technology has made it possible to connect people residing in different locations with one shared goal: to map and bring to safe storage cultural assets from the consequences of war. Citizens in and outside Ukraine, as well as researchers and professionals from the cultural sector, have joined forces to enable them to take action using only their smartphones and laptops. This clearly shows that technology and the diaspora can be two important parameters in contemporary forms of citizen engagement, especially in such disruptive socio-political contexts.
#2: Forms of activism present more than ever before in human history. Technology has also altered the way citizens engage in a common cause during conflicts, as new forms of digital activism are being developed to assist efforts for cultural heritage preservation. Some of the forms of digital action are crowd initiatives, bottom-up and top-down initiatives together that pave the way towards direct involvement of citizen communities in action-taking environments. This is why our focus on the Ukrainian conflict is also triggered by this quite unprecedented spread of digital activism in support of the Ukrainian cultural heritage sector.
#3: Immediacy and action. Citizens’ mobilisation in collaboration with cultural heritage organisations, academia, state foundations and civil society organisations has shown what individuals can do in practice to alleviate stressful and threatful situations (the example of hurricane Katrina presented by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, 2019). As cultural assets are the first to be affected by conflicts, we deem it critical to emphasise the value of rapid action due to unwillingness to deal with the issue in a timely manner. As clearly depicted in the statement below by Andreas Segerberg, digital heritage activist, SUCHO initiative:
“On the same day that the war broke out, Andreas Segerberg and the other volunteers started running and backed up Ukrainian websites (…) If you do not act at once, the material risks disappearing”
(Andreas Segerberg in the Teller Report, 2022)
We believe in crowd-driven change as an emergency response and demonstration of agile, bottom-up action. These initiatives are of ultimate importance and show the value of immediate action in cultural heritage preservation. An example from digital heritage activist Sebastian Majstorovic:
“It was in the night from March 2nd to March 3rd, when I had tried to save the website of the state archive of Kharkiv and had managed to get a single file out of the archive…and then a few hours later the website was offline and it is still offline to this day, and we have a copy of this.” (Sebastian Majstorovic at AllDigital webinar, 2022)
#4: Role of culture to bridge dichotomies. Culture can be expressed in various ways, while human societies have based their community bonds and elements of cohesion in culture. Particularly in times of conflict, we deem that culture has the power to unite communities; especially when it comes to protecting and preserving cultural assets. In other words, culture should unite people and not divide them. As cellist Yo-Yo Ma states:
“We invented culture to meet this need: we found a short-hand to take the essential values and truths a society holds, and collapse them into coded narrative, sound, images and symbols that mean something to all of us.” (Yo-Yo Ma, 2018)
The way forward
As part of our own contribution to enhance crowd initiatives for safeguarding Ukrainian cultural heritage, we are organising a series of dedicated events and activities. Firstly, the webinar, “Cultural Heritage Threats and the Role of Citizen Engagement Inside and Outside Universities” takes place on June 10. Secondly, as part of the European hackathon #EUSpace4Ukraine, initiated by the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), we are hosting a challenge related to earth observations to serve Ukrainian cultural heritage (more here). Finally, an openly accessible online resource on the role open innovation can play in cultural heritage under threat is underway (video). A snapshot of the resources collected to produce this online material can be found here.
AllDigital Week 2022. Webinar “Save Ukrainian cultural heritage digital” https://www.facebook.com/kn.knukim/videos/673302347330645 April 11, 2022
Ma, Yo Yo, 2018. In a fractured world, we need culture to survive and thrive, World Economic Forum https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/yo-yo-ma-we-need-culture-to-survive-and-thrive-future/
Nuffield Council of Bioethics (2019) After Hurricane Katrina: a review of community engagement activities and initiatives. https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/assets/pdfs/Community-engagement-after-Hurricane-Katrina.pdf
Teller report, Swedes save Ukraine’s internet: “Want to save the digital cultural heritage”, https://www.tellerreport.com/life/2022-04-12-swedes-save-ukraine-s-internet–%22want-to-save-the-digital-cultural-heritage%22.Bkl9ZUqME5.html April 12, 2022
The authors would like to thank Milena Dobreva and Michael Peter Edson for their insights on an early version of this publication (review does not mean endorsement). The authors take full responsibility for any mistake of omission contained herein.
Teaser video on forthcoming online resource on this topic.
Zourou, K., Oikonomou, S. 2022. “Resilience and action-taking: a vision of crowd initiatives for cultural heritage preservation in an armed conflict”. Blog post available at https://web2learn.eu/resilience-and-action-taking-a-vision-of-crowd-initiatives-for-cultural-heritage-preservation-in-an-armed-conflict, May 30, 2022.