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5 years after the Baghdad Museum's looting, a little optimism is finally appropriate: Interview with the British Museum's John Curtis

The situation at the Baghdad Museum remains bleak but thieves are less of a problem at archaeological sites

Five years ago Coalition forces invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The main attack began on 20 March 2003, although it was not until three weeks later that US troops entered the capital. In the chaos that followed, the Baghdad Museum was looted extensively, from 10 to 12 April. This provoked an international outcry because the Americans had failed to protect the museum, one of the most important in the Middle East. Roughly 16,000 antiquities were stolen, of which, about half were eventually recovered.

In the first year of Coalition rule, the museums and archaeological sites of Iraq were constantly in the press, but since then the situation has had much less coverage. Security has remained a constant problem, with endless bombings and shootings. This has made it very difficult for museum and archaeological staff to work. For foreigners, the security risks are even greater, and this soon meant that it was virtually impossible for international specialists to visit the country (other than for very short trips under armed protection).

For an overview of the current situation, we interviewed Dr John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East at the British Museum. He is among the best-informed outside specialists on the country’s archaeology and has visited Iraq four times since Hussein’s overthrow, at considerable personal risk. Dr Curtis has also been deeply involved in international efforts to help Iraqi colleagues protect their museums and sites.

The Art Newspaper: Five years after the looting, what is the situation at the Baghdad Museum?

John Curtis: It is still bleak. At least 8,000 objects are still missing, although we don’t know the precise number. Among the very important items are the ivory plaque of a lioness and almost the whole collection of cylinder seals.

A lot of the material now in store is in very bad condition. Material was thrown off the shelves during the looting, and trampled under foot. Environmental conditions inside the museum are not what they ought to be. It was very damp in June 2003, when I was there with British Museum conservators. This is very bad for ivories, cuneiform tablets and metal objects. In 2006-07 the doors had been sealed for security reasons and this may well have made conditions even damper. When the museum was unsealed last autumn, fortunately it was found that there had been no flooding or plague of rats.

TAN: In December we reported that the museum was set to reopen if the security situation allowed this. Has this happened?

JC: Two galleries have been reopened, but I am not sure that they qualify as public displays, because it is unclear who is allowed to enter.

TAN: How serious is looting of archaeological sites?

JC: The situation has been very bad, particularly in the south, at sites such as Isin, Tell Jokha (ancient Umma) and Bismaya (ancient Adab). However, recently there seems to have been an improvement. Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York State is monitoring satellite images of sites for evidence of digging. There now seems to be quite a falling off in the digging.

TAN: Why the improvement?

JC: Dr Abbas al-Hussainy, until recently the head of antiquities, had good contacts with tribal groups in the south and he stressed to them the importance of preserving sites. Another reason is that the market seems to have dried up, and there is no point in digging if you cannot realise quick profits. There may have been an improvement in policing of sites, but this is very recent, only in the past few months.

TAN: Are looted Iraqi antiquities turning up in western markets?

JC: There doesn’t seem to have been much Iraqi material appearing in London or western markets, and very little on eBay. There may be collectors buying in the Gulf states and the Far East, but this is speculation. Probably a lot of the looted material has remained in Iraq.

TAN: How much damage has been caused to sites by Coalition troops?

JC: Iraq is a vast archaeological site. You cannot have military manoeuvres without causing a great deal of damage.

TAN: After the looting of the Baghdad Museum, Iraqi specialist Dr Donny George was regarded in the outside world as the key figure involved in the struggle to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage. What has happened since he fled to the United States in 2006?

JC: Dr Abbas al-Hussainy took over as head of the state board of antiquities and heritage, but he unfortunately stepped down last summer and is now abroad. This seems to have been because of internal politics, at a ministerial level. We are now looking forward to working with his successor, Dr Amira Edan, who is acting head and also director of the museum.

TAN: And who is in charge at the ministerial level?

JC: The minister of state for Antiquities and Tourism, Liwa Sumaysim, resigned with other Shia ministers last September (Mohammed Abbas al-Oreibi is the acting minister). However, the ministerial advisor in Baghdad, Bahaa Mayah, is very capable and energetic, and we are working with him. The minister for Culture, Asaad Kamal al-Hashemi, seems to be in exile.

TAN: What will be the impact of the withdrawal of Coalition forces—on the country and on archaeology?

JC: One hopes the reduction in Coalition forces or their complete withdrawal would result in greater stability. This would be hugely beneficial for the cultural heritage, including the protection of archaeological sites, monuments and museums.

TAN: What are your predictions for the next five years?

JC: If the security situation continues to improve, as it has happened in the past few months, this will have a very direct impact on the cultural heritage. We might see the Baghdad museum fully reopening. Archaeological sites might be properly guarded. Although Iraqi archaeologists are now conducting some excavations, there could well be more, possibly in collaboration with foreign colleagues.

TAN: And will foreign tourists be visiting Babylon in five years’ time?

JC: It will take quite a long time to re-establish the infrastructure for heritage management and tourism, and I doubt this can be done so quickly. But hopefully a start will be made.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The situation at the Baghdad Museum remains bleak but looting of archaeological sites is decreasing'