June 3, 2005

The Looting of Iraq & what we should be doing

Posted at 8:10 am in Similar cases

The British Museum is putting pressure on the British Government to do more about the looting of the museums & archaeological sites of Iraq. Whilst this an admirable cause & has recieved less media attention since the initial looting after the fall of Baghdad, is it really that different from what the British were doing in many places in the last couple of centuries (with the results of this looting on display in the British Museum.)
I am certain that in response to this argument Neil MacGregor would argue that we have moved on from that phase. This is completely true, as we now have a greater awareness of these issues. However, the British People have moved on, but the British Museum does not. Neil MacGregor often speaks of the “Universal Museum” a concept of the age of enlightenment out of which the British Museum was born. On reflection though is it not also the right time to move on from this dated concept of the universal museum, to let it evolve into a new type of universal museum, one that is relevant to today’s values, understandings & the paradigms under which today’s society operates?

The Art Newspaper

The UK government must act now
The director of the British Museum reflects on the looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and what now needs to be done
By Neil MacGregor
Director, The British Museum

Another day, another report of death in Iraq. Or probably, several. As I write this review, the German press has announced that Fuad Ibrahim Mohammed, head of Baghdad University’s Institute of German Studies, who for the last two years has been working to re-build its library, destroyed by artillery when American troops entered Baghdad, has been murdered by unknown killers on his way to work. It happens all the time. It is hardly even news. The human cost of rebuilding Iraq’s cultural patrimony is, and will be, immense and is shamefully under-reported in the outside world. This is the context in which readers of The Art Newspaper must address The looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, which tells once again the familiar events and gives some idea of what will one day need to be done as a consequence.

As the museum itself is still closed, this book takes us on an imaginary stroll through its rooms and through Mesopotamian history. Our guides are a team of distinguished scholars—Iraqi, Italian, American and British, most of whom have worked for decades in Iraq. Using works from the museum’s collections, they lead us from the Stone Age to Alexander the Great, pausing every now and then to look in detail at an outstandingly beautiful object. It is a serious general guide to the museum we cannot visit. At intervals, to vary the pace, an excursion—with superb photographs—is made to the great sites, archaeological, Islamic, Ottoman, led this time by those who have dug and studied there and can tell us why the places matter.

But the purpose of this beautiful book of easy scholarship is, of course, not pleasure, but a call to action, and its scope is far wider than its title suggests.

The story of the looting of the museum is by now well known. There can be no questioning the loss of thousands of objects from its collections, especially cylinder seals, and there is little more now to say. The damage wilfully inflicted on the historic site of Babylon by American and Polish troops who chose to use it as a transport hub has been widely publicised and internationally condemned.

But the aerial photographs showing the continuing organised looting of many other archaeological sites will shock most readers, as will the account of the systematic failure of the coalition forces to protect them, in spite of the unequivocal obligation that international law imposes on occupying powers.

It is hard to see how the current Iraqi government can soon succeed where the coalition with its huge international resources so signally failed, and site-looting is now a staple of the local economy in many areas. On any realistic view, this destruction of knowledge will continue for years to come. It is unlikely we shall ever be able to measure our loss. A portion of the royalties from this book will go to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. But every reader of The Art Newspaper is bound to ask what they, as individuals, or working with institutions, can do.

For the situation is far worse than even this book suggests. Focussing on the Iraq Museum and the great sites, it does not address the loss of libraries, the destruction of most of the archives of Ottoman Iraq, or the damage inflicted on towns and cities which are still inhabited.

Since the change of regime in Baghdad, the Iraq Museum has been opened for only one half day: for a press conference to show that the gold of Nimrud prudently stored in the vaults of the Central Bank by the staff, was indeed still safe. It was, but the ivories from Nimrud had suffered serious damage because their store had flooded and they still await conservation. As electricity is intermittent and unpredictable, there is neither dependable air conditioning nor light in the museum. So conservation work is impossible, and the slow checking of objects in the underground store rooms is out of the question.

In such circumstances the museum can do virtually nothing. Even if staff risk travelling across the city, they cannot work when they get there. Colleagues from abroad are eager to help, and have done so in the past, but with foreigners having become targets of hostage-taking or assassination, it is hard to see how institutions can responsibly allow expert staff to travel to Iraq. Serious engagement of foreign specialists with the archaeological sites cannot even be considered.

The British government committed itself shortly after the invasion to helping with the cultural reconstruction of Iraq. It has brought a number of Iraqi colleagues to the UK for training; three archaeologists from Babylon are at the moment in the British Museum, but there has been no concerted campaign of assistance. By the time this review is published, there will be a new government in both London and Baghdad. The new Secretary of State for Culture in the British Government must seize this opportunity. Working with Iraqi colleagues, the British government must construct a plan of co-operation, training and investment over several years, beginning with an intensive programme of training for Iraqis in Britain, and preparing for the moment when it will be possible for us to offer help of all sorts on the ground in Iraq. Throughout the UK, individuals and institutions are eager to do whatever they can, if the government will only provide the resources and the framework. It is hard to see what task could be more urgent for the new Secretary of State, or where more good will and energy could be counted on to produce results. But with things as they stand, nothing can happen unless the government will play its part.

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