The British Army is offering to help create a museum in Basra, which would be set up by the Iraqi authorities in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. British military planners have codenamed the project Operation Bell, after Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist who helped establish the Baghdad Museum in 1926. Assistance is also being offered by the British Museum, but all parties stress that this is an Iraqi venture.
The Art Newspaper can report that the location would be the Lakeside Palace, built by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s. Set beside an artificial lake and overlooking the Shatt al-Arab waterway, it lies in a secure area 2km south of the city centre. The opulent palace has a North African feel, with marble in the main rooms. A survey by Major Rupert Burridge of the Royal Engineers has confirmed that the palace could be converted into a museum relatively easily. It would provide four large exhibition galleries.
The museum project was initiated by Major-General Barney White-Spunner, who commanded the IIIrd Division. On the Iraqi side, it is supported by Dr Mufid al-Jazairi, chairman of the cultural committee of the Iraqi parliament. The project has already been approved by the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism, and has now gone to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for a final decision.
The Lakeside Palace would provide considerable space for antiquities. These would come from Baghdad’s National Museum, which has a huge collection in its stores (including some from Basra which survived the looting in 1991). The new museum would also show ethnography, manuscripts and more modern historical items. Its location in one of Saddam’s palaces would help tell the story of very recent events.
No one is willing to discuss the construction costs of the new museum, but they could be up to £10m. Once prime ministerial approval is granted, the Basra Museum could open in two years.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'British Army to help turn dictator’s palace into a museum'