Parlous state of Iraq’s national museum

In Iraq’s national museum,
home to some of the world’s most precious artifacts of ancient
Mesopotamia, a caption beside a skeleton simply reads in English: “dated
to very old time.”

And some of the museum’s most
impressive pieces carry no labels at all — like a giant stone head
lying on the ground that may or may not belong on a nearby empty
pedestal labeled “Assyrian King Nimrod,” the Biblical tormentor of the
patriarch Abraham.

Ten years after Iraq’s national
museum was looted and smashed by frenzied thieves during the U.S.-led
invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, it’s still far from ready for
a public re-opening. Work to overcome decades of neglect and the
destruction of war has been hindered by power struggles, poorly-skilled
staff and the persistent violence plaguing the country, said Bahaa
Mayah, Iraq’s most senior antiquities official.

wish that the great historical Baghdad would appear in her finest face
and that the Iraq museum opens,” said Mayah, the head of antiquities in
the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry.

“But our wishes crash against the unfortunate reality we live in.”

museum was once the showcase for 7,000 years of history in Mesopotamia,
birthplace of some of the first cities and one of the first writing
systems — cuneiform — and home to a succession of major
civilizations, including the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian, through
to a flourishing Islamic empire.

The museum was left
a wreck the day after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops on April 10, 2003.
Ancient clay scrolls and pottery littered the floor. Looters made off
with everything from gold bowls and ritual funeral masks to elaborate
headdresses. The U.S. was sharply criticized for not protecting the

Because the museum’s inventory was never
completed, it’s uncertain how many pieces were stolen, but the number is
estimated at 15,000 pieces. More than a quarter have been retrieved,
said Mayah, who has overseen the museum formally since 2012 but has been
involved in its renovations for the past five years.

began soon after the museum was smashed up in 2003, starting with the
basics, like computers, office furniture, air conditioning. By mid-2004,
the museum was rewired for electricity and most basic repairs to its
structure completed. Since then, the U.S. and Italian governments have
helped renovate the halls.

But work has been slow.
Only five of 30 exhibition halls have been renovated so far — and two
of those have to be done again because they were improperly done. As a
result, the museum is still not open to the general public. Its only
visitors are specially arranged foreign delegations, Iraqi officials and
field trips by Iraqi students.

It’s part of a
broader problem of preservation of antiquities in Iraq. There are over
12,000 registered archaeological sites in Iraq but they are mostly not
protected, allowing for widespread, ongoing looting, Mayah said.

museum itself was shuttered from the early 1990s by regime officials
who said they feared for its safety, as Saddam mired the country in war,
leading to crippling sanctions. The closure meant the museum’s
inventory wasn’t updated. Sanctions meant staff couldn’t update their
skills, and many qualified employees left amid an exodus of Iraqis from
the country.

In a central Baghdad quarter, the
museum is surrounded by high concrete blast walls. Guards check bags in a
caravan set up in the neglected museum garden. The main entrance is
under construction, so visitors enter through a corridor leading to
administrative rooms.

On a recent visit by The
Associated Press, the renovated exhibition halls were eerily quiet, with
gleaming floors and shining display cases, the artifacts encased neatly
inside. The sound of workers employing drills was palpable as they
renovated another hall. A ladder was strewn under a map of ancient

Two of the renovated rooms are meant to
showcase the Sumerian civilization, which emerged some 3,000 years ago.
But the sparse labels on the artifacts shed little light on the
antiquities that represent some of humankind’s most important
milestones. Many labels lacked the age of the artifact, where it was
found, what civilization it belonged to, or what its use was. Some
didn’t have labels at all. Nowhere in the hall — or anywhere else —
is it explained who the Sumerians were or how they influenced later

In one of the displays lay a skeleton
in the earth it was found in, alongside rings and jars. A printed label
beside it read: “A human skeleton found in situ, put beside him some
Jars and rings between him dated to very old time.”

The label on a fist-sized figurine of a monkey clutching his ears simply identifies it as “some monkey.”

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