Using NASA technology, American museum workers are helping to collect evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

Using NASA technology, American museum workers are helping to collect evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

The world-famous museum center Smithsonian Institute in the USA (Smithsonian) uses satellite photos to help Ukraine collect evidence of war crimes committed by the Russians.

Immediately following the full-scale invasion in 2022, the Institute established the Cultural Rescue Initiative in collaboration with the Virginia State Museum of Natural History and the University of Maryland, which have the necessary equipment and expertise to monitor and preserve cultural heritage sites. We asked the curators of this initiative at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington how it happens and what crimes have already been recorded.

The Hague Convention classifies the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage during an armed conflict as a war crime. Ukraine and Russia have ratified this document, so in order to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is important to document the damage to cultural objects. Such an ambitious goal was set by the researchers of the Smithsonian American Museum Center when in 2022 they founded the project of remote monitoring of the cultural heritage of Ukraine.

“We’re trying to do this research to document the damage done to cultural heritage for potential future war crimes investigations,” Kathryn Hansen, a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, told VOA. – We have united scientists who study the conflict with colleagues in Ukraine, we also work with government officials.”

Evidence of looting

Catherine Hansen calls the satellite photos of the Kherson Art Museum during the occupation, taken just at the moment the exhibits were removed from it, a rare success.

“From October 31 until November 4, 2022, reports began to appear that the Kherson Museum was being robbed. We looked at satellite photos, and this is one of those rare cases when it was actually possible to record looting,” said researcher Hansen.

She shows a satellite photo of Kherson, where it is noticeable that three trucks are parked near the building of the Kherson Art Museum.

“Three large white trucks can be seen here, they are parked right next to the museum. And they match the reports from social networks and from the scene, which indicated how these trucks are being loaded with exhibits from the Kherson Art Museum. This is another proof that the museum was robbed. The photo shows the exact date when it happened and also documents how many trucks were involved,” said Kathryn Hansen.

The researcher also adds: “Another thing we try to highlight in our reports is that the looting appears to have been organized.”

Employees of the Smithsonian Institution assure that they are compiling reports on Ukraine in compliance with legal requirements for use in future war crimes investigations.

Kathryn Hansen says: “We hope that our reports will meet the evidentiary standards that will allow them to be used in court. They are available to anyone who wants to use it as evidence.”

Observation of sights in the occupied territories

The project is financed by the US State Department. According to the researcher, the monitoring of specific objects is ordered by her colleagues from Ukraine – researchers of the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab (NeMo: Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab).

“For example, when the dam exploded and the flood began, our colleagues from Ukraine contacted us. We asked them what place they wanted us to look at and what we should look out for. And as soon as we received the images from the US satellite providers, we gave them an update on what was happening with the cultural sites – what was submerged and what wasn’t,” continued Kathryn Hansen, a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.

Among other things, American colleagues were able to identify the flooding of the house-museum of the Ukrainian artist Polina Raiko in occupied Oleshki, Kherson region, during the flood due to the destruction of the Kakhovskaya HPP.

A fellow of the Smithsonian Institute shows satellite photos again. This time – with flooding after the destruction of Kakhovskaya HPP.

“Here’s this house museum that was flooded. The yellow arrows point to where the house was and the white arrows show the flood or water level. Here you can see the June 6th flood. The white arrow goes to where the museum is and the water is flooding all the houses in the area. And this is the next day, June 7, it is already clear that the water has completely flooded the entire area,” said Catherine Hansen.

NASA technology helps gather evidence of war crimes

To analyze the state of cultural monuments, researchers use satellite photo technology developed at NASA to detect forest fires, said Kathryn Hansen. This technology captures kinetic activity using infrared heat sensors. Photos with kinetic activity are compared with a map of cultural objects and it is revealed which object was potentially under fire or shelling.

Catherine Hansen: “We can inform colleagues who work on the preservation of cultural objects about the status of an object in an inaccessible area, we can advise them on which buildings should be saved as a priority. This helps Ukrainian colleagues to determine where resources need to be directed.”

28,000 objects of Ukrainian cultural heritage are marked on their map, which they can observe. These are museums, memorials, monuments, religious institutions, libraries, and archaeological sites. Only in the first year of a full-scale war, researchers documented more than one and a half thousand objects that could be damaged.

“Cultural heritage is the material of society. And raising public awareness about this aspect of life in Ukraine – the damage it is caused by the war – is actually very important,” the Smithsonian researcher emphasizes.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, it has been officially confirmed that 664 objects of cultural heritage have been damaged in Ukraine. How many of them were actually destroyed and who exactly should bear responsibility for this, Ukraine is investigating in court, after the deoccupation. In particular, with the help of researchers from the Smithsonian Institute.

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