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
Wednesday June 18, 2003
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
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
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