18 May: International Museum Day: The Advancement of Learning and Culture Rene Wadlow*
18 May has been designated by UNESCO as the International Day of Museums to highlight the role that museums play
in preserving beauty, culture, and history. Museums come in all sizes and are often related to institutions of learning
and libraries. Increasingly, churches and centers of worship have taken on the character of museums as people visit them
for their artistic value even if they do not share the faith of those who built them.
Museums are important agents of intellectual growth and of cultural understanding. They are part of the common
heritage of humanity, and thus require special protection in times of armed conflict. Many were horrified at the looting
of the National Museum of Baghdad when some of the oldest objects of civilization were stolen or destroyed. Fortunately
many items were later found and restored, but the American forces had provided inadequate protection at a time when
wide-spread looting was predicted and, in fact, was going on. More recently, we have seen the deliberate destruction of
cultural heritage in the museum of Mosul by ISIS factions. Today, there is deep concern for Palmyra as ISIS and
government troops battle near Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Conserving a cultural heritage is always difficult. Weak institutional capabilities, lack of appropriate
resources and isolation of many culturally essential sites are compounded by a lack of awareness of the value of
cultural heritage conservation. On the other hand, the dynamism of local initiatives and community solidarity systems
are impressive assets. These forces should be enlisted, enlarged, and empowered to preserve and protect a heritage.
Involving people in cultural heritage conservation both increases the efficiency of cultural heritage conservation and
raises awareness of the importance of the past for people facing rapid changes in their environment and values.
Knowledge and understanding of a people's past can help current inhabitants to develop and sustain identity and
to appreciate the value of their own culture and heritage. This knowledge and understanding enriches their lives and
enables them to manage contemporary problems more successfully. It is important to retain the best of traditional
self-reliance and skills of rural life and economics as people adapt to change.
Traditional systems of knowledge are rarely written down; they are implicit, continued by practice and example,
rarely codified or even articulated by the spoken word. They continue to exist as long as they are useful, as long as
they are not supplanted by new techniques. They are far too easily lost. Thus is is the objects that come into being
through these systems of knowledge that ultimately become critically important.
Thus, museums must become key institutions at the local level . They should function as a place of learning. The
objects that bear witness to systems of knowledge must be accessible to those who would visit and learn from them.
Culture must be seen in its entirety: how women and men live in the world, how they use it, preserve and enjoy it for a
better life. Museums allow objects to speak, to bear witness to past experiences and future possibilities and thus to
reflect on how things are and how things might otherwise be.
Early efforts for the protection of educational and cultural institutions were undertaken by Nicholas Roerich
(1874-1947) a Russian and world citizen. Nicholas Roerich had lived through the First World War and the Russian
Revolution and saw how armed conflicts can destroy works of art and cultural and educational institutions. For Roerich,
such institutions were irreplaceable and their destructions was a permanent loss for all humanity. Thus, he worked for
the protection of works of art and institutions of culture in times of armed conflict. Thus he envisaged a
universally-accepted symbol that could be placed on educational institutions in the way that a red cross had become a
widely-recognized symbol to protect medical institutions and medical workers. Roerich proposed a “Banner of Peace” three
red circles representing the past, present and future that could be placed upon institutions and sites of culture and
education to protect them in times of conflict.
Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A.
Wallace, then the US Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an
official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace the Roerich Peace Pact signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21
States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an
ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a
symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education
which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs.
Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in additions
the unique contributions of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together
in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”
As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways, and
everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of
libraries of Lou vain and Overdo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheims. We remember the beautiful
treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeps
any worlds of hatred. Let us simply say : Destroyed by human ignorance rebuilt by human hope.”
After the Second World War, UNESCO has continued the effort, and there have been additional conventions on the
protection of cultural and educational bodies in times of armed conflicts. The most important is the 1954 Hague
Connection for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
Museums help to build new bridges between nations, ethnic groups and communities through values such as beauty
and harmony, that may serve a common references. Museums also build bridges between generations, between the past, the
present and the future.
Therefore, on this International Museum Day, let us consider together how we may advance the impact of beauty
upon the world.
*Rene Wadlow, President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens