Monday, 23 February 2009

Controversial Reopening of Iraq’s National Museum

by Kathryn Hadley

The Iraq Museum in Baghdad reopened today, almost six years after it was pillaged in May 2003, in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the time, approximately 15,000 artefacts were looted; only 6,000 of which have currently been recovered. Coalition forces did not receive orders to intervene and allegedly stood by as Iraq’s heritage was pillaged. The recovered treasures went on display, today, in a special wing of the museum. The museum was symbolically reopened in July 2003 in an effort to show that some of its riches remained, but has been closed ever since.

The museum’s collections, which include treasures dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, are a source of national pride. At the opening ceremony, after thanking the countries involved in the campaign to recover the museum’s artefacts, such as Syria and Iran, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki explained:

‘We want to make our museum a place which will be at the forefront of
international museums. There's a long road ahead of us.’

Artefacts from the museum have notably been found in South America and Washington has provided $13 million to help restore the museum. Only eight of the museum’s twenty wings are, however, currently open and Al-Maliki explained that a large-scale international campaign would still be necessary in order to recover many of the museum’s lost treasures.

The museum’s director Amira Eidan explained:

‘We are going to inaugurate the Iraqi museum now, but don't expect it to be what
it was before when 26 wings told the story of Iraq through the ages […]. We have
focused in particular on exhibiting the antiquities looted in 2003 but which
have been recovered.’

Over the past six years, the museum has gradually recovered some of its treasures, which include sculptures, gold jewellery, decorative silverware and ceramic bowls. In November 2003, more than 800 looted artefacts were returned to the museum, including a 2300 B.C. copper Bassetki statue and about 820 other smaller objects from different periods. At the time, the ministry of culture issued an amnesty for all citizens who returned looted artefacts. In 2005, the FBI listed the recovery of missing artefacts from Iraq’s National Museum as one of the ‘Top Ten Art Crimes’ that it sought to solve. Last December, Iraqi soldiers seized 228 allegedly stolen antiquities and arrested seven members of a gang suspected of trafficking such items. In two other raids in southern Iraq’s Basra province, soldiers discovered a further 168 artefacts and arrested five people and also seized sixty other artefacts, detaining two people.

There is still considerable work to be done and the current situation rests on two main fault lines. If renewed violence erupts, the collection could, first of all, be endangered once again. Moreover, today’s opening was subject to fierce dispute between Iraqi government departments. On the one hand, the department of tourism and antiquities desired a ceremonious opening as a symbol of Iraq’s recovery from years of sectarian violence and to show that it could secure its people as well as its cultural artefacts and tourists. The ministry of culture, however, argued that it was too early, that the political situation remained too precarious and that the collections were not properly catalogued or displayed and were not up to modern standards. The date for the reopening of the museum was still being debated at the beginning of last week and today’s ceremony almost did not happen. Iraq’s minister of state for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, explained:

‘Some factions tried to politicise the inauguration of the museum, while others
underestimated Iraqi abilities in archaeology. Still others tried to delay the
opening on the pretext of security and potential hazards.’

Reuters notably published an article on Wednesday about the dispute between the ministry of culture and the department of tourism and antiquities.
The Iraq Museum was founded in 1923 when it occupied a small space in Al-Qushla building. As the museum's collections expanded, it was transferred to a building in the Al-Salhiya district of Bagdad, which it still occupies today. It was inaugurated in November 1966. For more information on the museum, visit its website

For background information of the US invasion of Iraq, read our article Coming as Liberators

For information on the unexpected consequences of US participation in military conflict, notably in Iraq, read our article The US and the Unintended Consequences of War

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