Buffeted by political turmoil, violence, effects of climate change, economic pressures, and cultural and social shifts, ancient and modern cultural sites across the world are constantly at risk. Sites such as these are valued because they contain art, architecture and natural features that are unique and historically significant.
Often situated in war-torn areas, however, many of these sites have become focal points of contemporary iconoclasm or collateral damage in battle. Western and industrial nations lament the destruction of ancient monuments, but often local communities are also strongly effected by the destruction of sites that provide a sense of identity or place, as well as economic income through tourism. The destruction of ancient sites in Syria such as Palmyra by political and religious extremists, and of cities such as Aleppo and Damascus in the ongoing Syrian civil war, are only the most recent high profile examples of how quickly sites of great cultural value are disappearing.
Art Under Assault is a website at the University of California, Irvine, generated by students in Art History 198 (Art Under Attack), a course dedicated to understanding the issues surrounding the preservation and protection of historical and cultural sites around the world that are in constant danger of destruction. The website focuses on some of those monuments and archaeological treasures that are most vulnerable in the world today. In 1970, UNESCO, recognizing that looting of archaeological sites had become an increasing problem, adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
It has since been ratified by 129 member states. In 1972 the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Culture and Natural Heritage. This agreement has also been ratified by 191 countries that have signed on to help protect sites and areas of cultural and natural significance within their borders. Since the 1970s, threats to monuments, cultural sites and areas of natural significance have increased exponentially. Some sites are more threatened than others. Recognizing that many areas of the world are in imminent danger, UNESCO has identified sites that are in the greatest peril in a special category of World Heritage in Danger. Art Under Assault showcases nine (9) of these sites that were chosen by students enrolled in UCI’s Art History 198, taught in 2015 by Lyle Massey, Associate Professor of Art History.