In conflicts between nations, irreplaceable art can become a casualty of war. Whether willfully or by chance, museums and cultural institutions suffer the same fate as other infrastructure. The buildings that house art are reduced to rubble during bombardments. Priceless antiquities are looted in the chaos of ground combat. And in some fights, the systematic destruction of cultural artifacts is a sanctioned offensive tactic.
The scale, scope and duration of some wars may stymie efforts to protect art and antiquities. Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria have suffered unimaginable cultural losses, even as community volunteers stepped up to protect museums from looters and insurgents pledged not to target cultural sites. Last month, UNESCO verified that Russian attacks have damaged twenty-seven museums in Ukraine, including the Odessa Fine Arts Museum, the Kyiv Art Gallery, the National Palace of Arts and the Kharkiv Art Museum.
But when conflicts are slower to start or advance, cultural institutions can take various proactive steps to protect vulnerable art. Earlier this week, in the wake of Israel’s initial response to the brutal killings of civilians by Hamas, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art closed its doors to the public and quickly relocated the museum’s most vulnerable works to protected areas of the institution. As sirens warned of a potential rocket attack in Tel Aviv, sculptures were wrapped, installations were protected and the doors between galleries were reinforced.
“We are in difficult and painful times of war, marked by devastating destruction and the tragic loss of lives,” Tania Coen-Uzzielli, the museum’s Director, told Observer. She emphasized that the closure of the museum’s physical galleries is only one facet of the institution’s response to the current conflict.
“In an effort to maintain our connection with our community, the Museum’s education department has initiated a series of online programs and activities tailored for both adults and children who find themselves confined to their homes,” she explained. “Moreover, we are preparing thousands of art kits each day, which we send to children and families who have been evacuated from their homes in the southern regions of Israel to various centers across the country.”
Israel’s first art museum is no stranger to conflict response. During the Gulf War in 1991, the museum moved its entire collection into a rocket-proof vault roughly the size of an auditorium. In 2012, as Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel during its air strikes against Gaza, it relocated around 200 works of art into the vault. “Even if there’s a very small possibility of damage, we don’t play around. We don’t take chances,” Doron J. Lurie, then senior curator and chief conservator, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that year. And in 2021, similar volleys of air strikes and rocket barrages led the museum to once again evacuate select works.
This speed, Coen-Uzzielli said, demonstrates the institution’s unwavering commitment to safeguarding the paintings and sculptures in its collections, which include masterpieces by Picasso, Klimt, van Gogh and many other notable artists. “These artworks are in a secure location and they have been safely stored until further notice,” she said, “in the hopes that quieter and better days will come soon.”
War and museum destruction
Evacuating artwork is a sensible response, given that entire museum collections have been lost to the indiscriminate means of war in recent history. In World War II, more than 400 paintings (including works by Caravaggio, Tintoretto and Peter Paul Rubens) and 300 sculptures from the collection of what is now the Bode Museum were destroyed following the Battle of Berlin. When the Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitary forces sacked Vukovar during the Croatian War of Independence, three of the town’s four museums and galleries were destroyed. The Palmyra Museum in Syria was partially wrecked by Russian and Syrian airstrikes in 2015, after which ISIS fighters smashed much of the museum’s remaining antiquities. Shelling by Houthi rebels in 2016 leveled the Taiz National Museum in Yemen. And in March of 2022, during Russia’s siege of Mariupol, the Kuindzhi Art Museum, which held thousands of works by Arkhip Kuindzhi and other Ukrainian artists, was destroyed.
There are numerous other examples, but perhaps not as many as one might suppose. Quick action by museum staff and volunteers has saved several other prominent art and culture institutions—and their collections—from the same fate. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s prudently cautious approach to art evacuations is one that has paid off in recent history. During the Spanish civil war, the Museo Nacional del Prado and other institutions moved more than 1,800 crates of works by artists like Goya, El Greco and Velázquez to the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva. In 1939, director of the French national museums and French resistance member Jacques Jaujard helped coordinate the clandestine three-day evacuation of masterworks like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa to a rotating series of castles in the Loire Valley. Across the Atlantic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art initiated a similarly intensive evacuation in 1942, shuttling ninety truckloads of precious art from New York City to Whitemarsh Hall, a fireproof and highly defensible mansion fifteen miles outside Philadelphia.
Saving art requires a rapid response
While Russian attacks have effectively damaged museums in the Ukraine, much of the art within was spared harm thanks to quick action by museum directors, curators, gallerists, artists and volunteers who relocated artworks into museum strongholds or evacuated them to secure locations. A Washington Post article from 2022 describes basement bunkers, both manufactured and makeshift,“crammed with paintings.” In Lviv, the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum (the largest art museum in Ukraine) packed up and stored nearly its entire collection.
For institutions without access to protective infrastructure like vaults or bunkers, there’s another option. In 2015, at the peak of the Syrian civil war, the Association of Art Museum Directors released its “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.” The document outlines protocols for protecting artwork in conflict zones, transporting endangered works to other institutions, managing display and conservation concerns and coordinating the safe return of art. It’s a framework museums can use to become literal safe havens—somewhere art can go during wartime where it can be not just secure but also cared for, studied and appreciated.
In time, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which showcases modern and contemporary art from around the world, will re-hang its artworks and open its doors to a waiting public. Until then, the museum’s most significant and vulnerable pieces—which like all great art, represent our shared human heritage—will remain out of range of the rockets, in the care of those best equipped to keep it safe.