Who should keep Crimean treasures: the answer was sought at ICOMOS-UK Annual Lecture in London

December 10, 2014 • Articles • Views: 1481


review by Anna Morgan, Ukrainian events in London

As one would expect from a Ukrainian, I came to the event with a ready-to-go answer to the question of who should the Crimean collection be returned to – Kiev or Moscow. Of course Kiev. I had no doubts before the event. But after the 1h30min lecture I started to doubt. Should they stay in Amsterdam for a while?


The lecture on Crimean treasures started with a brief on Ukrainian crisis, its origins and development. One might say it was pretty objective, others – that there was too much stress on right-wing movements and Bandera ‘heroism’ in the slides, which obviously didn’t define the recent revolution in Ukraine, but which was apparently included into presentation for the sake of objectivity.

But the important message by the lecturer Professor Rob van der Laarse was heard:  the conflict in Ukraine is not something that is happening at the outskirts of Europe. It is the conflict within Europe. As the Ukrainians were fighting for European values, democracy and closer ties with the EU. Recently Europeans too became victims of Russian aggression – meaning those who died in the MH17 catastrophe. The lecturer himself lost 2 students and 2 university colleagues on that tragic flight.

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As a researcher, Professor van der Laarse was trying to be objective, admitting however that it is always difficult to understand the situation, disregarding one’s own personal perspective.

One should agree with the statement (which is most true for Ukrainians now) that we tend to look at the current events with a so-called ‘conflict eye’, that memory and history is always political and that the past is never too far away. Which brings us back to the main topic.


Following planned arrangements with Kyiv and Crimean museums, some artifacts traveled to Amsterdam to become a part of a bigger exhibition called Crimean Treasures, a collection of Scythian gold. In March 2014, when it was time to return the museum items  – Crimea had suffered Russian annexation and became a non-recognized territory. And hence the Crimean part of the collection was deemed stateless. Now the artifacts are claimed by Crimean, Moscow and Kiev museums. And it seems that there is no good solution to the problem at the current moment.

So where does it belong? To Ukraine, which claims the collection to be of national importance and origin? Or to Russia, which is playing its games of ‘Slavic rights’ claiming that the collection is part of Slavic heritage. Professor van der Laarse feared that should the collection be returned to either Kyiv or Moscow, it is highly unlikely that it will appear in a Crimean museum again.

There was no final answer to the above questions even by the end of the lecture. But what followed was pretty surprising and thought-provoking. The lecturer looked at various conflicts that happened in the recent history: the genocide of Serbs, Armenian genocide by Turks (which is soon approaching its 100-year anniversary, and is still not recognised in Turkey), the Holocaust and even the Holodomor (the terror famine in Ukraine). The questions were raised, such as what is ‘just memory’, ‘competing memories’, and ‘memory of wars’. Notwithstanding the tremendous differences in the numbers of victims, the causes of conflicts etc., the audience was shown how same tragic moments of history were preserved by museums of the warring parties and presented to the public.

So the lecture that started as ‘who should own Crimean collection’ touched on a much broader topic of ‘who may own the past’, the question of how to preserve the sensitive tragic periods of human history such as genocide, without provoking new hatred and conflicts.

The chair of ICOMOS-UK summarised it well:

“There is no heritage without culture. We choose what we will remember and we choose what we will forget. And that is the potential for conflict. We must be mindful of the minefield which is cultural memory.”




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