In defence of history: Iraq Museum reopened

Amid the chaos of Iraq, the reopening of Baghdad's National Museum is a ray of hope for conservation of the country's ancient past

Visitors to the official opening of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad walk between two lamassu statues, a deity depicted as a winged bull with a human head. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
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In the face of ISIL’s attempts to wipe out the cultural artefacts of an area widely held as one of the cradles of civilisation, the reopening of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad last week is a defiant stand in defence of world history.

It had survived the downfall of the Parthian Empire and two invasions by Roman legions nearly 2,000 years ago – but it took ISIL little more than day to bulldoze and destroy the ancient fortified city of Hatra.

It was just the latest chapter in a wave of destruction, as the terrorists destroyed statues at Mosul museum and obliterated the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

“It is like a nightmare that we can’t wake up from,” said Iraqi archaeologist Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr.

The race to save and protect Iraq’s history has never been more critical than today, and it was fear of loss during previous wars that led to many of the artefacts from the newly devastated Unesco sites such as Hatra to be moved to storage in the capital.

Now they are being taken from their hiding places and will live on to tell the nation’s historic stories at their new home, the Iraq Museum.

It reopened defiantly in Baghdad last week, 12 years after it was closed in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003. It was a testament of Iraq’s pledge to continue saving and promoting its heritage in the face of cultural genocide.

“Although it was already planned to be opened this month, the ISIL attack made it urgent to open it earlier,” said Dr Al Gailani Werr, who has worked at the Iraq Museum since the 1960s.

She was an adviser to the ministry of culture and has been involved in the museum’s many stages of renovation and resurrection. The museum is dedicated to documenting and interpreting the history of Iraq and its environs through collections comprising more than 200,000 objects that cover the past 7,000 years.

“It has a tremendous significance as a response to the deliberate destruction of the country’s other priceless pieces conserved in the Mosul Museum and those in the region of Nineveh,” Unesco director general Irina Bokova said after the opening of the museum.

Ms Bokova said it confirmed “the will of the Iraqi government and support of the international community to highlight this iconic museum as a defence against intolerance, ignorance and violence perpetrated on the testaments of a nation’s historical past, intercultural exchange and cultural diversity”.

Failure by the US occupying forces to protect it led to the museum being ransacked after the downfall of the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.

The number of looted artefacts has been a matter of debate but, by some estimates, about 15,000 items including 5,000 valuable cylinder seals were stolen.

“One of my first jobs was related to these priceless cylinder seals. I had to register the seals, make impressions of them and send them to be photographed,” said Dr Al Gailani Werr.

“Their loss is very painful for me. Only 500 of the entire collection found in Iraq between 1923 and 1990 have been recovered, and what is more painful is that, according to the investigation at the time, it was an insider job.”

Only a third of the stolen artefacts have been recovered, through global efforts, with the museum’s website featuring an online document for reporting antiquities suspected of belonging to the museum.

Dr Al Gailani Werr, one of the first female Iraqi archaeologists to excavate in her country, said it was difficult to decide what were the museum’s greatest losses. If she had to choose one item to mourn it would be a small, carved ivory piece from Nimrud, a site recently destroyed by ISIL. The piece depicts a lioness devouring her African victim.

“It is Assyrian in date but Phoenician made, and must have been booty when the Assyrian kings campaigned in the Levant. It has not just history but great beauty,” she said.

The objects that remain in the museum’s collection represent Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic cultures, and include objects made of glass, pottery, metal, ivory and parchment, among others.

Now heavily guarded, the museum’s rebirth has been a major international and Iraqi effort, including assistance from the UAE.

From training to supplies to tracking down the looted items, the world has assisted Iraq in reviving its museum. “It would take days” to name all those who helped, said Dr Al Gailani Werr.

But she listed Iraqi citizens who donated funds, the Italians who designed the Assyrian and Islamic exhibitions, and the Sumerian Hall, the British Academy, which donated funds to the refurbishment of the Cuneiform Library, and funding from Japan that restored the museum’s laboratory.

“All the coalition countries and others contributed one way or another,” Dr Al Gailani Werr said.

In a sense, the story of the museum is a story of Iraq.

What started off as two rooms in Ottoman barracks as the first galleries, the Baghdad Archaeological Museum was set up in 1926 with help from the British author, archaeologist and political agent Gertrude Bell, who became the museum’s first director.

Credited with the making of modern Iraq, Bell had drafted the country’s first antiquities law regulating the excavation and export of Iraq’s treasures.

She persuaded British archaeologists, as well as a British agent by the name of T E Lawrence, against removing any more of Iraq’s treasures and placing them in western collections, such as the British Museum.

Bell had been collecting artefacts in a government building, which later become the Iraq Museum’s first official collection, since 1922.

The museum came under different management, including the ministries of public works and education, until it was moved to a modern building in 1966 on the west bank of the Tigris, built with help from the German government.

It was expanded in 1983 by the Italian government, when six large galleries were added to take the total to 22 galleries.

“I started working in the Iraq Museum in 1960 after graduating from Cambridge University. The museum was still in the old building in the centre of Baghdad,” said Dr Al Gailani Werr.

“At the gate there were two statues of Babylonian lions and in the courtyard stood two Assyrian winged bulls, like the ones ISIL destroyed in Mosul last week.

“The museum was near the main bazaar. My room was at the top of the stairs. I used to watch local women in their abayas stop and look at the lions and the bulls, curious about these antiquities as they made their way to the markets.”

She says that in her first year at the museum, she ended up in her first excavations, at the small Old Babylonian site of Tell Al Dhibai, in which was found one of the museum’s most important finds – “a small mathematical cuneiform clay tablet solving the Pythagoras theory, but more than 1,000 years before him”, Dr Al Gailani Werr said.

The museum was closed from 1991 during the First Gulf War and reopened on April 28, 2000 for Saddam’s birthday.

Then, as war broke out again in 2003, the museum was plundered in April amid the chaos, with various culprits accused, including members of the US armed forces.

Despite a turbulent journey, the Iraq Museum has come a long way.

“I can say that, compared with the last time I visited regularly, in the 1980s, it is brighter, fresher, much better displayed, much better labelled, and altogether much more like a museum of international calibre,” said Dr Jane Moon, an archaeologist working in Iraq.

“Considering all that has happened, it’s pretty miraculous.”