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The U.K. saved its art during WWII and gave me a future. Ukraine is doing the same.

The act of preserving art during war may be the last thing we think about, but the attempt to do so — rooted in a strong sense of national identity — has a long history.
Image: Workers move a baroque sacred art piece in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum as part of safety preparations in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022.
Workers move a baroque sacred art piece in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum as part of safety preparations in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022.Bernat Armangue / AP

As a very young child, some of my earliest memories are of walking in the historic neighborhoods of post-World War II London. Noticeable were the gaping holes where houses formerly stood. These dandelion-strewn bomb craters could easily once have been art-filled homes, architectural gems or museums. I played on the grounds of the massive, nearly 350-year-old Holland House, which was almost completely destroyed in the 1940 Blitz.

But, thanks to remarkable foresight, the majority of London's major international art collections were kept secure against German bombing. Much of it was hidden in Welsh mines or stored in the deep tunnels of the London Underground, which also safeguarded much of the city's population during the bombings.

A civilization's art and architecture are the final words they leave to the future.

After the war, the artwork was returned, unpacked, dusted off and gingerly carried into museums, restored once more for quiet enjoyment. Almost every Sunday in my teens, I was able to take the No. 88 double-decker bus to the Tate Gallery on Millbank to feast my eyes on that institution's remarkable global and British collections. I also traveled to the National Gallery and learned to love its wonderful paintings and sculptures. If this art had been destroyed, these life-changing experiences would never have happened. My career as an art historian started then. The value my parents' generation placed on preserving art in wartime gave me a future career.

This is what I think about when I learn of the herculean efforts being made by Ukrainians to safeguard their art and architecture during Russia's invasion of their country.

A civilization's art and architecture are the final words they leave to the future. Often, war, by accident or intent, extinguishes it. From Teotihuacan, Mexico, to Alexandria, Egypt, to Persepolis, Iran, cities were razed by war for thousands of years to degrade the confidence of their inhabitants and leave space for the invaders to impose their own cultures.

Image: Monument of city founder Duke de Richelieu is seen covered with sand bags for protection in Odessa
A monument of the city founder Duke de Richelieu is covered with sand bags for protection in central Odessa, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022.Liashonok Nina / Reuters

In a break with the past, the new norm has been to avoid events like this, codifying in international law and custom the protection of artwork and architecture under fire. Since 1899, the Hague and Geneva conventions have forbidden signatories from entertaining the wanton destruction of property in wartime. These conventions are easily violated yet make it easier to galvanize a populace when that line has been crossed.

In the first weeks of World War I, in 1914, German bombardment caused substantial damage to medieval Reims Cathedral in northern France, including blowing out most of its stained-glass windows. In Canada, the event triggered the production of an enlistment poster that suggested that if French Canadians did not take up arms, their cathedrals would also burn.

During WWII, American and German authorities likely saved both Kyoto, Japan, and Paris from probable destruction. The U.S. military deemed Kyoto a prime target for the atomic bomb, but Secretary of War Henry Stimson intentionally removed the city from the bombing list on the grounds that it would be "a wanton act" to destroy a site of such intrinsic cultural value. Adolf Hitler had directed Paris to be reduced to "a field of ruins," an order ignored by commanding officer Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, earning him the moniker "savior of Paris."

Despite our best efforts to safeguard it, artwork has vanished in the fog of war. This was the fate of Russia's fabled early 18th century Amber Room, which was nicknamed the "eighth wonder of the world." It was constructed out of 13,000 pounds of the luminescent golden-brown material. Initially housed in Berlin, in 1716 it was gifted to the Russian Czar Peter the Great by the Prussian King Frederick William I. It was looted by the Germans during WWII and reconstructed in the old Prussian capital of Königsberg. As the Russians advanced in 1944, the Amber Room was deconstructed and stored. Subsequently, the city, now known as Kaliningrad, was badly bombed. To this day, it is not known whether the Amber Room survived or remains hidden. Nevertheless, the memory of it was so potent that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a reconstruction in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in 2003.

Following WWII, more efforts were made to reinforce the international Hague and Geneva conventions. A 1977 strengthening of the 1949 Geneva Conventions in Article 53 seeks to prohibit "any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples."

Despite our best efforts to safeguard it, artwork has vanished in the fog of war.

This has not, of course, stopped such acts of hostility. Two events come to mind: the Taliban’s destruction of the sixth century Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Islamic State group’s destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO heritage site in Syria, in 2015. The international outcry certainly showed the propaganda potential of unrestrained obliteration yet laid bare how toothless the international community is when it comes to preserving cultural sites.

As many watch the unfolding war happening in Ukraine and the atrocities that include the killing of civilians, the act of preserving art may be the last thing we think about. But the country has a proud history that has been colored by long periods of subjugation, including Soviet control from 1922 to 1991. This history is reflected in its architecture and art. Ukraine has seven World Heritage Sites, including the mosaic and fresco-laden St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, an Orthodox monastery founded in 1051. Also a World Heritage Site is the 13th century ancient quarter of Lviv, the city from which many Ukrainian refugees are fleeing West. A number of the country's modern artists are world famous, including the Kyiv-born cubist, Alexander Archipenko, who moved to the U.S. in the Soviet era.

A strong sense of national identity is at the heart of much of the Ukrainian effort to sandbag or safely store underground its precious culture. Ukraine cannot anticipate its future, but it does know its self-identity resides as much within its history and culture as it does within its geographic borders. By attempting to safeguard its art and architecture from Russian bombing, Ukraine is going a long way in ensuring its cultural survival, especially for future generations, who will flourish once war is a more distant memory — like I once did.