Institutions offer help to Baghdad Museum

NEW YORK – The looting of Iraq’s National Museum in the wake of the U.S. military occupation of Baghdad provoked a worldwide outcry, especially after reports that U.S. troops “looked the other way.”Assessments of the extent of the damage continue.

Speaking at a recent press conference on the looting, Dr. John Edward Curtis, of the British Museum, said that of the items on exhibit at the museum, the small, portable items had been removed for secure storage off-site. It had yet to be determined if these items were intact. Of the larger items from the exhibit, 15 were smashed, and 30 to 40 were missing. Some smashed items could possibly be reconstructed through modern conservation methods, he said.

All of the offices and administrative areas had been trashed. Paper records, computer disks and film were all over the floor, some stacked up to be burned. It is estimated that it will take several months to get these records into a usable state.

In addition, he said, it is not known how many items are missing from a storage area that contained between 100,000 to 200,000 objects. Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said a team of experts arrived in the Iraqi capital on May 17 and reported that far fewer items were missing than originally thought. The team is concentrating on questions related to the theft of objects, preparation of an inventory for the Baghdad museum and an action plan aimed at restoring the principal cultural institutions of the city, in particular, at enabling museum employees to resume their activities.

There has been concern that some of the employees had supplied inside help to looters. Reports in the media spoke of unlocked doors to storage areas. However, Curtis claimed that all the doors he saw had been forcibly entered, and had nothing but praise for the competence and integrity of the museum staff. He did support the idea that there had been planning. One missing item is the largest bronze casting of its time. Curtis said the base alone weighed 350 lbs.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said that there had recently been a meeting of representatives from museums around the world who resolved to make their collective knowledge available to the Iraq museum. MacGregor said that this was the first time the international museum community has come together to help an institution in this way.

Phillipe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has approached both Kofi Annan, in his role of head of UNESCO, and Karl Rove with proposals to encourage the safe return of missing items. While there is fear that items may go on the black market, the worst scenario is that items are melted down for their gold content in order to escape criminal prosecution or recover whatever monies can be gotten if found to be unsaleable. Montebello, therefore, proposed amnesty and small rewards to create incentive to return the items.

Interpol met with museum representatives in Lyon, France, May 5, in order to start compiling a photographic database of the missing items. This can be seen at www.interpol.com/Public/WorkOfArt/Iraq/Gallery.asp

While about 700 artifacts have been recovered, either by being caught at the borders or voluntarily returned, there is continued looting at sites. There are more than 10,000 archaeological sites in Iraq. Hanna A. Khaliq, general director of excavations, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Before the war, we had 1,600 guards protecting various sites. Now we have nothing, no cars, no people. The sites are not safe. The looting will continue.”

While there are major collections in other museums around the world, the Iraq National Museum, MacGregor told the World, was the only one to have a comprehensive representation of all the sites.

An official from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for postwar Iraq told the London Observer, “It’s a tragedy and disaster for our image and for rebuilding Iraq.”

The author can be reached at kmoy@pww.org