Cuno ’73 addresses ISIS campaign

by Tina Owen,

Wielding a sledgehammer, a hooded figure smashes an irreplaceable, ancient stone carving in a museum. Other looters destroy statues, tombs and archaeological sites. When an antiquities scholar attempts to protect the rare artifacts, he is beheaded.

In recent months, scenes and news of such atrocities have emerged regularly from Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic fundamentalist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) attempts to gain military, political and religious control of the area. 

In a free, public lecture at Willamette University on Nov. 5, James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, explained the reasons for — and the ramifications of — such attacks on the world’s shared cultural heritage.  The lecture was part of a series of related university events: “Taking the Long View: Art and Cultural Heritage in an Age of Terror.” 

A 1973 graduate of Willamette, Cuno dedicated his talk, “ISIS and the Threat to our Cultural Heritage,” to “the teachers at Willamette who drove my curiosity about the world.”

In front of a packed audience in Rogers Music Center, he outlined how the destruction of cultural treasures has taken place during wartime throughout the ages. “It’s all tied up with national identity,” he said. “It’s a way of obliterating the enemy’s beliefs, erasing their culture.”

ISIS is driven by the ideological need to establish a monotheistic state with only one god and one set of beliefs. As Cuno explained, “[ISIS] is afraid of world views other than its own. It kills people and destroys the things it fears. Its enemy is polytheism, cosmopolitanism and modernity.”

But the objects that ISIS targets don’t simply belong to Syria or Iraq, Cuno argues: “They’re not just the cultural treasures of one particular nation. They’re the origins of human civilization — and the attacks against them are a crime against humanity.”

A highly respected scholar, author and leading figure in the museum world, Cuno emphasized that nations have a duty to protect cultural heritage. He acknowledged the complex situation in the Middle East, made worse by political wrangling within the United Nations. Yet, he insisted that global actions — including military intervention, providing a safe place for artifacts in other countries’ museums, and promoting trans-national cultural understanding — are urgently needed to protect “the commonwealth of humanity.”

“These treasures are representations of ideas that have manifested for centuries. They have survived centuries of turmoil and tumult, yet they’ve disappeared on our watch,” he said. “We have a responsibility as humans to usher into the future evidence of the past.”

Trying to protect artifacts even as millions of refugees suffer and die under ISIS’s regime of terror doesn’t imply that art is more important than people, Cuno noted. “The choice between saving people or saving cultural treasure is a false dichotomy,” he said. “Finding a way to preserve a living link to the world’s oldest civilizations in all their beauty and profundity is what makes us human. Affirming our humanity is what will eventually enable us to defeat ISIS. ”