Museums in Europe and US draw up rescue plans for ravaged sites in Iraq

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French president François Hollande at the Louvre, alongside its Assyrian antiquities, announcing that the museum would support colleagues in Iraq. © AP Photo
French president François Hollande at the Louvre, alongside its Assyrian antiquities, announcing that the museum would support colleagues in Iraq. © AP Photo

European and US museums that preserve and display Assyrian artefacts fr om the ancient royal cities under attack by Islamic State (IS) are working to help their Iraqi colleagues prepare for a day when the sites are liberated. A coalition of the willing exists but it remains to be seen whether institutions will co-ordinate their efforts.

Jonathan Tubb, the keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum in London, urges organisations to do more than express outrage. “We need to get over the threshold of despair—we can do something positive and constructive by preparing for the time when effective government control is restored,” he says.

While the sites in northern Iraq are no-go areas, the British Museum plans to work with colleagues fr om other parts of Iraq to train a “task force” of professionals in rescue archaeology and emergency heritage management in London. They will return, accompanied by British Museum curators, equipped to draw up plans of action for sites including Nimrud and Nineveh.

Meanwhile, the Louvre plans to send staff to Baghdad this summer on a fact-finding mission and has invited Iraqi colleagues to Paris to share expertise.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has just staged the exhibition Assyria to Iberia, already offers curatorial and conservation training. The Met is considering organising an international conference “somewh ere in the Middle East that would include Iraqi and Syrian colleagues who have difficulty travelling to the US”, its director Thomas Campbell tells us.

Wim Weijland, the director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the Dutch national antiquities museum) in Leiden, which is planning an exhibition on Nineveh for late 2016, says that museums in the West have an obligation to do what they can. “It is important that the big museums co-ordinate their actions,” he says. “We have one curator of the Ancient Near East. Bigger museums have 20, so their effectiveness can be bigger.”

Explosives and bulldozers

The stakes are high. “This is a concern for anybody who is interested in the human story,” says Julian Siggers, the director of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. The violence threatens “the first cities, the first complex societies and the earliest writing.”

Despite destruction by explosives, bulldozers and power tools, which the attackers have videoed and posted online, reconstruction may be possible, Tubb says. Looting means artefacts are lost to the black market, but destruction leaves fragments of buildings and foundations in situ. Others, including Weijland, fear that looting may accompany the destruction.

If this history is “to be put back together”, training must begin now, Tubb says. The British Museum hopes to launch a rolling programme for four Iraqis at a time. “We don’t know how long it will take [for government authority to return]. It could be two years or five years. But if we start now, there could be at least 20 fully trained people ready.”

Iraqi and Syrian professionals also participated in an intensive four-week-long training course in rescue archaeology in the Netherlands in April. The programme, co-organised by the Dutch national Unesco committee, the Smithsonian Institution and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Iccrom), included sessions on everything from the role of the military to the stabilisation of buildings.

Trainees have already taken their skills to the field in Syria. In March, a group of conservators, curators and others who attended a session co-organised by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center completed emergency conservation on the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum, 50 miles south of Aleppo. The team fortified 1,600 sq. ft of Roman and Byzantine mosaics and laid down truckloads of sandbags to protect the walls from further damage.

Researchers at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center are also proactively documenting collections in areas of northern Iraq that have not fallen under IS control. “The concern is that these places may not have been well studied by scholars who can assist with reconstruction,” says Brian Daniels, the centre’s director of research and programmes. At the same time, Western institutions must give locals an opportunity to set the agenda, he says. “These people are risking their lives—we have to empower them with the resources they need.”

Other US institutions springing to action include the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which hopes to establish its own archaeological heritage centre. The institution seeks to use satellite imagery to monitor conflict zones and build a database of major collections in the region.

The Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Trust recently sponsored a training session in Italy for mosaic conservators from Syria and Libya. But James Cuno, the president of the Getty, says that more dramatic measures may be necessary when local authorities are usurped. “We need to consider the re-introduction of partage, the sharing of archives and collections,” he says.

Cuno acknowledges that opponents will argue that museums sharing excavation finds as they once did is a “neo-colonial position”. But it would spread the risk when calamity strikes. “We are talking about legally excavated finds, with a provenance, not illegal ones that enter the black market,” he stresses.

Some maintain the practice is either impractical or unwise. “I’m not sure any of these countries would want to give these items back,” Julian Siggers says. Brian Daniels notes that disaster can strike anywhere. “If we turned the clock back sixty years, London would not have been a safe place for objects. We would have wanted them in Baghdad.”

Considering the extent of destruction, the discussion of partage also seems “insensitive”, says Jesse Casana, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “What we need to do is help to find a political solution to the war.”

by Julia Halperin , Javier Pes