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A back-up plan for culture

The international community must come together to create a secure archive of cultural objects from all over the world
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First Published: Thu, Feb 07 2013. 06 34 PM IST
A file photo of Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a vast sub-terranean seed vault located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A file photo of Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a vast sub-terranean seed vault located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
On 26 February 2008, a vast sub-terranean seed vault was inaugurated on the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Located just 1,300 miles from the North Pole, Spitsbergen is part of a remote archipelago, Svalbard, populated by no more than 3,000 people.
It is this remoteness that made Spitsbergen an ideal location for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). The SGSV functions like an international bank locker system for global plant bio-diversity.
While the government of Norway owns the buildings itself, the individual seed deposits themselves are made, and always owned, by the owners of the original seed samples. The whole idea of SGSV is to serve as a biological back-up in case some form of natural or man-made crisis wipes out entire ecosystems.
As of September last year, the seed vault contained a total of around 750,000 seed types, making it a truly invaluable, global insurance policy against biological catastrophe.
So why doesn’t the international community come together to do the same for art, culture and fragile manuscripts?
During the recent crisis in Mali, international alarms were raised after rumours that the priceless manuscripts in Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute were torched by Islamist militants. The institute has a collection of around 40,000 manuscripts, some dating as far back as the 10th century.
After weeks of swirling rumours, more recent reports suggest that local residents were able to rescue almost all of the archives barring perhaps some 2,000 manuscripts.
This is not the first time that crises of a political or geographic nature has threatened cultural archives. The US invasion of Iraq, and the uprising in Egypt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak were all accompanied by attacks on major national museums and archives.
Much like nations have come together to protect bio-diversity, perhaps it is time to think of a remote, secure, internationally managed archive of cultural objects that preserve samples from all over the world. No doubt it will be hard to convince nations to participate. Nations tend to hold on to history more firmly then they do to seeds.
But such a repository will be an invaluable insurance policy against future conflicts. Our supply of history is finite. Unlike our capacity for unrest.
How can the destruction of cultural heritage be prevented? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Feb 07 2013. 06 34 PM IST
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