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Yemeni Museums and the Protection of Cultural Heritage Amidst Times of War

The National Museum of Asian Art hosted an event this past January 27, spotlighting museums and the protection of cultural heritage, using the case study of repatriations to Yemen. It was advertised as an open-to-the-public program, to discuss issues of the looting and illegal selling of Yemen’s antiquities. Panelists included the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen; the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, a NGO dedicated to preventing looting and trafficking of antiquities; the director of the National Museum of Asian Art; as well as a representative from the Department of Homeland Security; the Republic of Yemen’s Ambassador to the United States, and the Republic of Yemen’s Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism (ICT). Set to coincide with the opening of an exciting new display of ten Yemeni cultural heritage objects recovered by the DHS from black market transactions, I had greatly looked forward to gaining some insight into the collection, but the event left me feeling largely unsatisfied. In lieu of an education on the significance of Yemeni culture and the museum’s collection of artifacts, dry, thinly-veiled political commentary and a lackluster attempt at centering authentic Yemeni perspectives was all I could find.

The event lasted around two hours and thirty minutes, beginning with presentations from the Yemeni ambassador to the United States and Minister of ICT, that highlighted the ongoing attempts to restore Yemeni museums that have been destroyed or robbed within the last 10 years. They also spotlighted educational and outreach programs directed towards local communities in Yemen, and their plans to implement strategies for facilitating the return of artifacts looted within Yemen. Following the presentations, the DHS representative spoke briefly about how they track and prosecute antiquity smugglers, buyers, and auctioneers inside of the United States, and how they have been able to use these tactics to aid in the apprehension of smugglers who traffick Yemeni artifacts Lastly, the American representatives held a discussion panel about the issues plaguing the protection of cultural heritage, such as the sale of illegally obtained artifacts to finance the ongoing Yemen civil war, and the destruction of museums, collections, and cultural heritage sites in conflict zones. 

The most pressing issue of the event were the constant allusions to the ongoing civil war and its crimes against protecting Yemeni cultural heritage, without any mention of strategic US efforts to combat these issues. Opening and closing remarks reaffirmed unequivocal support for the US-led multinational military operation against Yemen, while underlining the need for a diplomatic solution, so that the United States may repatriate the 77 seized cultural heritage artifacts currently warehoused in the National Museum of Asian Art. It is long overdue for the United States to reckon with its past of showing disregard and a lack of respect for cultural heritage preservation in the Middle East, while preaching policies of peace and preservation. 

The United States fails to recognize that its endless War on Terror in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, has directly led to the destruction of cultural heritage sites and artifacts, and created the conditions for unparalleled looting and pillaging to take place. For example, in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, US troops failed to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage. The US invasion of Baghdad in April of 2003 coincided with the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in what the New York Times called, “one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle East history.” Another example can be seen in Israel’s ongoing incursions into the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Al Jazeera has described the conditions as a “cultural genocide”, while the South African prosecution has named the wiping out of cultural heritage in Gaza as one of Israel’s many alleged war crimes. As of January 2024, more than 200 sites of historical importance have been destroyed or damaged in Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, including many churches, mosques, museums, and libraries. All while the President of the United States rejects a permanent ceasefire, and places utmost trust in the IDF while they continue to operate without regard for any civilian infrastructure, including museums and cultural heritage sites. 

This pattern of failing to recognize the lasting, damaging effects of US military intervention in the Middle East was ever-present in this Smithsonian event. The partnership reached in 2023 between the Republic of Yemen and the National Museum of Asian Art allows the museum to display Yemeni cultural heritage artifacts originally seized by the DHS. Although this has been hailed as a historic measure to facilitate repatriations, as the last Yemeni cultural heritage artifact was repatriated in 2004, Yemen is no longer in a place to consider “day-after” cultural heritage preservation measures. The temporary ceasefire reached between the Houthi movement and the Saudi Arabia and US-backed Republic of Yemen expired in October of 2022, while violence has further increased with bombings conducted by the US-led multinational military operation, Operation Prosperity Guardian. The effects that this new level of violence will have on Yemen’s cultural heritage preservation are currently unknown, but will likely be resoundingly damaging. A truly effective policy towards preserving cultural heritage in Yemen would demand a de-escalation to violence before considering any other measures, such as repatriations. 

How ironic that an event dedicated to celebrating Yemen’s cultural heritage coincides with the United States’ decision to bomb the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, a UNESCO world heritage site. The DHS’ presence and prioritization of security perspectives further added to the experience of inauthentic cultural education and suggested that cultural heritage in the region is important, but not more important than the United States’ desire to exert hegemonic control over the region. 

Repatriations of cultural heritage artifacts, alongside assistance with museums and other institutions that preserve the past and highlight indigenous perspectives, are necessary processes towards untangling the legacies of colonialism. But they cannot distract from larger wrongs, which actively harm attempts to preserve cultural heritage. In every repatriation ceremony, exhibition of museum artifacts on loan, and hundred-year-old museum lies a tale of power and empire. As cultural heritage is displayed and shared throughout the world as the vestiges of our common human civilization, it is, at the same time, weaponized by those with power so that they may claim the role of cultural steward, all while exploiting and manipulating cultural heritage for their own political and material gain. 


Jasper is a junior in the SFS studying Regional and Comparative Studies.


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