The Mosul Cultural Museum has entered the second phase of its rehabilitation, six years after the battle against ISIS left its artefacts damaged, looted or destroyed.
After a painstaking effort of cataloguing what is missing and restoring the fragments that remain, the museum is now beginning work on the building itself, in order to reopen in 2026.
The museum was the major project of the noted Iraqi architect Mohamed Makiya. It married his elegant modernism with inspiration from the Assyrian civilisation whose last capital, Nineveh, is across the river from Mosul.
The rehabilitation of the building will reverse changes that were made to the building, which opened in 1974. Two side balconies were closed to add more gallery space, and the apertures over the front facade were likewise blocked.
The new plans for the museum will open up these spaces and restore it to its original aspect – with one major difference.
It will leave as is the three-metre-hole in the main gallery where ISIS detonated explosives on a 9th century BCE platform for an Assyrian throne.
“The aim is to document the actions done by ISIS during their occupation of the city,” says Zaid Ghazi Saadallah, the director of the museum.
“At the same time it is a message for the younger generation to be aware of all the bad things that have happened because of ISIS.”
The announcement of the new plans was made at a packed press conference at the museum today, attended by the Iraqi Minister of Culture, the head of its State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and representatives of the four foreign agencies that are collaborating on the museum.
Under the terms of the project, led by Iraq’s SBAH, the museum will work with the Smithsonian Institution and the World Monuments Fund from the US, the Louvre Museum from France, and the Swiss cultural heritage organisation ALIPH.
Each has their role to play: roughly, the Louvre are conserving the objects in the museum, the World Monument Fund is restoring the building, the Smithsonian are helping to train and work with the staff of the museum, and ALIPH is helping to fund and support the overall project.
It is a major challenge. Though Mosul is returning to normality after its devastating battle, the signs of the airstrikes that flushed out the ISIS fighters are still everywhere.
The Cultural Museum was damaged not only by the ISIS’s deliberate targeting of the objects – documented in a 2015 video that they circulated – but also by mortar shells and two fires, one that they lit in the library, destroying 25,000 manuscripts, and a second that followed the TNT explosion. The basement was flooded and live ordnance and mines lay amidst the rubble: the Iraqi army needed to demine it before anyone could enter.
“When we first arrived, we walked on 10cm of fragments,” says Daniel Ibled, the lead conservator, describing the aftermath of the detonation of the throne platform and lamassu reliefs.
Ibled, from the Louvre, and a French and Iraqi team have been working on the fragments for the past four years and they are starting to show the shape of their former objects. The base of the throne now hangs vertically, suspended in the rooms next to its detonation, as the team piece it back together. A winged lamassu, also partially destroyed, is being restored in another hall of the museum, which bears the feel of a workshop rather than a site of exhibition.
As the conservators work towards the 2026 deadline, the museum is also holding a series of events that will reinforce its place in the community, such as concerts and exhibitions. When the museum opens, a cafe will be installed in its gardens – newly planted with sustainable greenery, says Alessandra Peruzzetto of the WMF – as Mosul creates a green belt from running from the river towards the city.
Artefacts that left the museum in 2003 for safekeeping in Baghdad will return to the museum, as will new findings from archaeological excavations that are currently ongoing. Though the museum was most badly damaged in the fight against ISIS, it has in fact been closed for 20 years.
“The opening of the museum is highly symbolic for the city,” says Peruzzetto. “We will help preserve its memory but also bring in new narratives.”