Cultural property protection made in Switzerland

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by Björn Schöpe

December 4, 2014 – Switzerland will offer a special sort of ‘asylum’ starting 2015: a depot will be open for cultural property endangered abroad.

Experts have been discussing since long what effective protection of cultural properties can look like: On the one hand there are those who insist upon adapting the legal framework in their own countries in order to keep illegal trade at bay. And then there are those who assume this measure is failing in its effects as objects should be protected from destruction and export in their countries of origin already. Switzerland and its most recent project in this field aligns with those who want to operate ‘on site’ – modifying at the same time their own laws reasonably.

From 1 January 2015 a former arms depot nearby Zurich could serve as reception centre for other countries’ endangered cultural property. The Swiss Federal law on cultural property issues has already been changed accordingly and now all parties involved are debating on that matter: the Federal Office for Civil Protection, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property, the Swiss National Museum, the Department of Federal Real Estate, the Federal Security Service, and the Directorate of Swiss Customs. While the debate is going on, other possible locations are still being examined.
Shipped material will be taken care of by the Swiss National Museum whose central Collection Centre comprising the conservators’ workshops is located in Affoltern, nearby Zurich, too.

Previously Switzerland has campaigned in a similar way. In the Spanish Civil War the Prado museum sent precious objects of art to Switzerland. The Afghanistan Museum above all served as a model to the new project. From 1999 until 2007 it hosted thousands of objects of art and of daily life near Basel. This private initiative convinced all conflict parties to cooperate – even Talibans shipped historical music instruments and glass plates with photographs from the nineteenth century. After opposing to the project in the first place, the UNESCO eventually decided to assume the patronage. In March 2007 all objects were transferred back to Afghanistan.

Until now no date has been established from when on the projected depot of cultural objects will be operating. Unfortunately there will be no lack of crisis regions which might be interested in accepting this offer. Let’s hope there won’t be lack of similar projects either.

Only German-speaking media have reported on this project as far as we know. The NZZ

… and the Anzeiger.

Here you can find more information (in German) on the Afghanistan Institute