Iraq's museums: what really happened

The truth behind the sacking of a cultural heritage is far less colourful than the allegations of corruption and cover-up

Eleanor Robson
Wednesday June 18, 2003
The Guardian

What is the true extent of the losses to the Iraq Museum -170,000 objects or only 33? The arguments have raged these past two weeks as accusations of corruption, incompetence and cover-ups have flown around. Most notably, Dan Cruickshank's BBC film Raiders of the Lost Art insinuated that the staff had grossly misled the military and the press over the extent of the losses, been involved with the looting themselves, allowed the museum to be used as a military position, and had perhaps even harboured Saddam Hussein. The truth is less colourful.

Two months ago, I compared the demolition of Iraq's cultural heritage with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, and the 5th-century destruction of the library of Alexandria. On reflection, that wasn't a bad assessment of the present state of Iraq's cultural infrastructure. Millions of books have been burned, thousands of manuscripts and archaeological artefacts stolen or destroyed, ancient cities ransacked, universities trashed.

At the beginning of this year, the staff, led by Dr Dony George and Dr Nawala al-Mutawalli, began to pack up the museum in a well-established routine first devised during the Iran-Iraq war. Defensive bunkers were dug in the grounds. Early in April, Dr John Curtis, head of the Ancient Near East department at the British Museum, described a recent visit to Baghdad during which the museum staff were sandbagging objects too big to be moved, packing away smaller exhibits, and debating "the possibility of using bank vaults and bunkers if the worst came".

The worst did come. On April 11 the news arrived that the museum had been looted. We later discovered that there had been a two-day gun battle, at the start of which the remaining museum staff fled for their lives. Fedayeen broke into a storeroom and set up a machine gun at a window.

While senior Iraqi officials were begging for help in Baghdad, the US Civil Affairs Brigade in Kuwait was also trying from April 12 to get the museum protected. They already knew that its most valuable holdings were in vaults of the recently bombed Central Bank. The museum was secured on April 16, but it took until April 21 for Civil Affairs to arrive.

Captain William Sumner wrote to me that day: "It seems that most of the museum's artefacts had been moved to other locations, but the ones that were looted were 'staged' at an area so that they would be easier to access. It was a very professional action. The spare looting you saw on the news were the excess people who came in to pick over what was left." In other words, there was no cover-up: the military were informed immediately that the evacuation procedures had been effective. Suspicions remained that a single staff member may have assisted the core looters. But, Sumner says: "It might have been one of the grounds people, or anybody. I suspect that we will never know."

Within a week the museum was secure enough for George to travel to London. At a press conference he circulated a list of some 25 smashed and stolen objects which the curators had been unable to move from the public galleries before the war. They included the now famous Warka vase, which had been cemented in place. Last week it was returned in pieces. Other losses came from the corridor where objects were waiting to be moved off-site. George was understandably reluctant to reveal the location of the off-site storage to the Civil Affairs Brigade as security was still non-existent.

Inventories of the badly vandalised storerooms finally began after the catalogues were pieced together from the debris of the ransacked offices. Dr John Russell, an expert in looted Iraqi antiqui ties, made a room-by-room report for Unesco late in May. He noted that most of the objects that had been returned since the looting "were forgeries and reproductions". Other losses, he reported, included some 2,000 finds from last season's excavations at sites in central Iraq. His summary tallied well with George's. "Some 30 major pieces from exhibition galleries. Unknown thousands of excavated objects from storage. Major works from galleries smashed or damaged." The unknown thousands are beginning to be quantified. Expert assessors in Vienna last week estimated the losses from the museum storerooms at between 6,000 and 10,000.

Outside the Iraq Museum, the picture is equally grim. At Baghdad University, classrooms, laboratories and offices have been vandalised, and equipment and furniture stolen or destroyed. Student libraries have been emptied. Nabil al-Tikriti of the Univer sity of Chicago reported in May that the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs lost 600-700 manuscripts in a malicious fire and more than 1,000 were stolen. The House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Academy of Sciences were also looted. The National Library was burned to the ground and most of its 12 million books are assumed to have been incinerated.

In the galleries of Mosul Museum, cuneiform tablets were stolen and smashed. The ancient cities of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra lost major sculpture to looting. The situation is far worse in the south. Some 15-20 large archaeological sites, mostly ancient Sumerian cities, were comprehensively pillaged by armed gangs.

It will take years of large-scale international assistance and delicate diplomacy to return the Iraq Museum to functionality. The process is deeply charged with the politics of occupation and post-Ba'athist reaction. The Civil Affairs officers are discover ing that senior staff are not necessarily enamoured of the American way, while junior staff are testing their newfound freedom to complain about their bosses. One insider commented: "George might make them work instead of read papers. And that is what all the fuss is about."

The British School of Archaeology in Iraq and the British Museum now have staff working in the Iraq Museum, while other organisations worldwide are fundraising. George, Mutawalli and his colleagues have achieved the extraordinary in preserving as much as they have. We now need to help them salvage as much as possible from the wreckage and re-establish the country's cultural infrastructure so that Iraqis can plan their future knowing their past is secure.

Eleanor Robson is a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford