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Legal Complexities of Cultural Heritage

30 March 2023
Meet the Expert | Evelien Campfens

Meet dr. Evelien Campfens, a cultural heritage law specialist and post-doc fellow at the Research Group ‘Museums, Collections and Society’ of Leiden University. She is involved in a variety of projects and organisations, such as her current research project on cultural heritage protection in Ukraine for the European Parliament (EP).

Dr. Campfens was educated to be a lawyer, with a specialisation in International Law. Her interest for the judicial aspect of cultural heritage started during the time she lived in Greece. There she learned about the Parthenon marbles, a collection of decorations that was removed from the Acropolis and taken to Britain in the early 1800s. It made her wonder about the questions related to cultural heritage and looted artefacts, which inspired her to start working at the Dutch Restitutions Committee for Nazi looted art in 2001. She describes this committee as doing “pioneer work”, because restitution of looted art was a brand new phenomenon at the time. In 2015, she came to Leiden University to do a PhD on the topic of looted art and restitution, where she later became a post-doc.

Recently, dr. Campfens was assigned by the EP to investigate the treatment and protection of cultural heritage in war zones, with a focus on the current war in Ukraine. She explains that this war is an example of a “culture war”, in which both material and immaterial cultural heritage play an important role. Both forms of cultural heritage are intertwined and can be twisted or even erased for political purposes. Examples are the looting of historically important cultural objects, and the “russification” of Ukrainian schools. Fortunately, dr. Campfens argues, there is growing international attention for the protection of cultural heritage, including more caution toward trafficking cultural objects that could be looted. Yet, she emphasises that looting cultural objects remains a lucrative business, especially as long as countries lack efficient legal tools to properly intercept looted art.

Dr. Campfens will soon present her recommendations in the EP, and also start with another EP project on transparent European policies on the topic of looted art and its restitution. She enjoys doing this kind of research, especially in combination with teaching and engaging with specific legal cases. It makes her optimistic to see that the new generation of students has a strong interest in global cultural heritage and its restitution. When asked about any activity she would like to add to her CV, she answers that she would like to get the still neglected field of cultural heritage law included in the academic curriculum. She points out her goal will not be possible to achieve, however, given her temporary position as post-doc. Yet, she is convinced that the expanding regulatory framework to protect cultural heritage will only be enforced if people are aware of it.

Interview by LeidenGlobal intern Nina
March 2023

>> Photo by Barbara Kieboom

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