The Sluggish Revival of Baghdad’s National Museum

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AFP reporter Ezzedine Said looks at a Baghdad city map in March 2003 at the Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. (Photo: AFP - Ammar Abed Rabbo)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Thursday, April 18, 2013

A decade after looters made off with a large chunk of the National Museum of Iraq’s collections, the museum is still closed to the public. Renovation projects are proceeding slowly, including a controversial new plan for the museum entrance.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, chaos reigned in Baghdad. Large-scale looting did not spare the National Museum of Iraq. It was nothing short of a tragedy.

Then-US president George W. Bush dispatched a team from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate the museum’s looting. This surface-level investigation didn’t yield any results, but it did produce a book deal. The head of the mission, Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the US Marine Corps, later published Thieves of Baghdad, an account of his Baghdad mission.

The teaser reads: “One Marine’s passion for ancient civilizations and the journey to recover the world’s greatest stolen treasures.” Despite this attempt at a swashbuckling adventure tale, no Iraqi official has ever explained the investigation’s results.

The case continues to be shrouded in mystery. Who were those professional thieves? How did they manage to enter the museum and find the keys to the storage rooms? Where were the stolen items sold, and what is their exact quantity? All these questions remain unanswered.

Lamia al-Gailani, a London-based Iraqi archaeologist, said that the revival of the National Museum is proceeding at a snail’s pace. On a visit to Baghdad several weeks ago, she toured the still-closed halls of the museum.

With great emotion, she said, “The museum is not yet ready to receive visitors. The small artifacts are not on display, and there are no labels.” She added that “the Italian team from the Centro Scavi in Turin has finished renovating the Islamic halls, and is working today on restoring the Assyrian hall, which will be magnificent.”

Meanwhile, according to University of Chicago Professor McGuire Gibson, the museum has been fitted with climate control equipment and a redesigned lighting system. However, he said, the museum only opens for major political occasions.

One such occasion was in 2003, when the museum opened its doors for a few hours so that the US administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority could check to see if Assyrian King Nimrod’s treasure was still there. Then again in 2009 when the museum received the Iraqi prime minister.

True, there are security concerns surrounding the museum, but something else might be at play. Gailani, for instance, said that renovation is “incomprehensibly slow.”

“The halls, for example, are being renovated for a second time, supposedly to change the style of the exhibition,” she said. Though completed two years ago, she said that renovation is being undertaken again in the Sumerian hall. Compiling the inventory of artifacts has been ongoing for four years, and “only 40,000 pieces out of a total of 250,000 have been itemized.”

Some attribute the slow pace to the unstable condition of Iraq’s state authority for antiquities and museums, which has been shuffled between the ministries of culture and tourism over the past few years.

Recently, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities was established, and the annual budgets for museums and excavations increased. Salaries rose as well, and hiring began anew.

Despite these measures, there were few improvements. Gailani said that the war took a toll on Iraq’s education system. “The majority of cadres are fluent only in Arabic, rendering them incapable of keeping up to speed with developments in the world of museums and antiquities.”

Other archaeologists maintained that ministers are hostile to Iraqi experts who studied in American and British institutions, which they claim are “dens of the occupation.”

Renovating the Museum’s Main Entrance

At the entrance to the National Museum, construction is underway. Workers are building what is expected to be a new Baghdad landmark: a replica of the Ishtar Gate, which once adorned the entrance to the ancient city of Babylon.

The National Museum’s Ishtar Gate replica wouldn’t be the first of its kind. At Berlin’s Pergamom Museum, there is a reproduction of the deep blue-colored structured, complete with a crenellated border. In Baghdad, many architects and archaeologists view the National Museum’s reconstruction as an “affront.”

Gailani said that the original entrance to the museum, designed in 1936 and completed in 1950, utilizes the same construction techniques as the Babylonian period.

“The construction used only mud-bricks, while the current structure will consist of concrete. It is badly designed, and resembles the mock-up structures at Disney World,” she said.

The National Museum is one of modern Iraq’s oldest edifices. The entrance became a major part of the city’s identity, and tampering with it is seen by many as tampering with the city itself. The old façade had survived all crises and conflicts, only to be finally vanquished by a shoddy replacement.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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