Last week I had the privilege of spending a few days with Dr. Donny George, who is the former director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—an institution which holds some of the most celebrated antiquities of the Near East. Dr. George fled the country in June 2006 because he had received death threats and is now a professor in the Anthropology department at SUNY Stony Brook. The museum he directed was of course looted from April 10th to 16th 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion when it was left unguarded and unprotected. As art historians, many of us feel an obligation to include these events in our survey courses and to discuss the loss with our students. But for those of us who are not Near Eastern specialists it can be difficult to devise a curriculum. And from my experience wading through news reports and websites I can attest that there is much misinformation published, and it is a struggle to determine what actually happened.
In preparation for meeting Dr. George I read several books on both the history of Near Eastern art as well as the looting of the museum, and the most insightful materials that I found were in an exhibition catalog titled Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past published by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It includes the details of the tragedy, high quality color illustrations, and essays by scholars that have been involved in the recovery. The essays are particularly valuable because they are short and written for a general audience—the perfect type of material to use as supplementary reading in a class. A friend of mine assigned one of them and the students enjoyed discussing it very much.
The catalog describes how, due to the foresight of the museum staff, many of the most valuable and important objects had been removed from display cases before the invasion. Some were put in off-site storage in the Central Bank. Objects too large to move were surrounded by padding and sand bags to minimize damage in the case of bombing. Nevertheless, when thieves entered the museum they were able to locate and abscond with approximately 15,000 objects, including “textbook” pieces of fine art, such as the Warka Vase and Mask. Files were overturned and mixed, thus erasing institutional memory.
The looting was widely-condemned in the international press, and the American occupying government was rightly criticized for not devising and implementing a plan to protect these objects of world-heritage. Of particular negligence is the fact that the museum remained unprotected for three days after the museum staff requested assistance in securing the museum and two days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly stated that the museum would be secured. Since that time nearly half of the looted objects have been recovered, but the museum remains closed to the public. Although the galleries were being prepared for reopening, due to political instability they have been permanently walled off with masonry to deter theft if the museum must be left unguarded again.
Besides the losses from the museum, looting continues on a large-scale at archaeological sites—particularly in southern Iraq. Unprovenanced objects taken from these areas are often of great beauty and garner high prices on the black market for antiquities. But without the information about where they came from they are of little use for furthering knowledge.