“In war, culture is anything but irrelevant. Destroying someone’s cultural identity is just as painful as any physical wound.”
Friedrich Schipper often travels without insurance – the destinations are considered too high risk. The places he and his colleagues travel – Syria, Libya, Mali, Lebanon – are not exactly holiday destinations.
Schipper works for Blue Shield, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the protection of cultural property in countries suffering war or armed conflict.
Many of Blue Shield’s members have military backgrounds, providing them with skills and experience to navigate difficult and dangerous situations” on the ground” in conflict zones.
“These situations require personnel beyond your typical museum curator or archaeology professor. We understand how to handle them stepby-step, day-by-day, hour-by-hour,” said the 46-year-old Wiener.
In addition to working for Blue Shield, which is affiliated with UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Schipper teaches cultural and historical communication at the University of Vienna. But as an archaeological specialist in Middle Eastern cultures, he has spent a good deal of time in conflict zones, such as the Gaza Strip and Iraq. In another assignment much closer to home, he heads down to Graz to consult Bundesheer forces in cultural property protection, one of the many tasks of Blue Shield Austria. In fact, the Austrian military has about 30 cultural property protection liaison officers and experts around the country.
“This really demonstrates our status as a cultural nation,” Schipper said. “In comparison, the UK – with a substantially bigger army – only has about 15.”
Still, any temptation to compare Schipper to Indiana Jones or the Monuments Men would be off the mark. As an archaeologist, he takes a more pragmatic approach.
“It might sound brutal, but my heart doesn’t bleed over something that’s been destroyed. As an archaeologist, I spend loads of time among ruins anyway,” he said. “The difference is, when I’m standing next to a colleague or resident from the area crying, as he’s watching the place where he lives and works be obliterated, that’s when it gets emotional.”