American Museums, with NASA Technology, Assist in Gathering Evidence of War Crimes in Ukraine
The internationally renowned Smithsonian Institution in the United States, using satellite imagery, is assisting Ukraine in collecting evidence of war crimes committed by Russians, as reported by Voice of America.
Immediately following the full-scale invasion in 2022, the institution initiated the Cultural Rescue Initiative in collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Virginia and the University of Maryland, both equipped and experienced in monitoring and preserving cultural heritage.
"We are attempting to conduct this research to document the damage inflicted on cultural heritage for potential future investigations of war crimes," stated Katherine Hansen, a Smithsonian Institution fellow. "We have brought together researchers studying the conflict with colleagues in Ukraine, and we are also working with government officials."
Katherine Hansen considers the satellite photos of the Kherson Art Museum during the occupation as a rare success. These photos were taken precisely at the moment when exhibits were being removed. "Starting from October 31st until around November 4th, 2022, reports emerged that the Kherson Museum was being looted. We examined satellite photos, and this was one of those rare instances where we could actually document looting," explained the researcher.
Hansen added, "Another aspect we are trying to highlight in our reports is that the looting, as it appears, was organized."
The Smithsonian Institution staff ensures that their reports on Ukraine comply with legal requirements for use in future investigations of war crimes. Katherine Hansen stated, "We hope our reports will meet the standards of evidence that will allow them to be used in court. They are available to anyone who wants to use them as evidence."
The project is funded by the U.S. Department of State. Researchers monitor specific objects based on requests from their Ukrainian counterparts, the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab.
Among other things, American colleagues were able to identify the flooding of the house-museum of Ukrainian artist Polina Raiko in occupied Oleshky, Kherson region, during the flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovska Hydroelectric Power Station.
To assess the condition of cultural landmarks, researchers use satellite imagery technology developed by NASA for detecting forest fires, Katherine Hansen explained. This technology detects kinetic activity using infrared heat sensors. Photos with kinetic activity are compared with a map of cultural objects to identify potential damage.
On their map, they have marked 28,000 objects of Ukrainian cultural heritage that they can monitor. These include museums, memorials, monuments, religious institutions, libraries, and archaeological sites. In just the first year of the full-scale war, researchers documented over one and a half thousand objects that could be damaged.
According to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, it has been officially confirmed that 664 objects of cultural heritage in Ukraine have been damaged. The true extent of destruction and who is responsible for it will be determined in court by Ukraine after de-occupation, with the assistance of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution.