The most publicised episodes of the looting that took place in Iraq, after the fall of Saddam’s regime, was the comprehensive theft and destruction of countless priceless artefacts from Iraq’s museums. It is unknown how many artefacts were looted (many potentially to order, and possibly already on their way to wealthy private collectors). It is certain, however, that many artefacts were destroyed and left on site. Whilst the loss of these archaeological treasures is tragic, the greatest tragedy may not necessarily lie in the loss or destruction of these artefacts as objects in themselves, but that those artefacts offered a vital key to a stable democratic future for Iraq.
The development of museums is inextricably bound to the creation of nation states and cultural identity. To display an object in a museum is a political, message-bearing act. During the era of colony and empire, the creation of Western cultural identities was invariably at the expense of colonised peoples, unifying imperialist elites against conquered races by labelling the latter as ‘primitives’, displaying their cultural artefacts and even human remains. The unparalleled collections in the British Museum and the South Kensington enterprises were a declaration that Britain occupied a large part of the world, and was now busy classifying it. During the 1848 Chartist marches on Parliament, British Museum staff were sworn in as special constables, the authorities fearing that the building and its contents would be seen as an institutional embodiment of the philosophies and doctrines of the ruling classes.
Saddam claimed ownership of Iraqi history and constructed a national cultural identity. Palaces were built next to significant historic and archaeological sites, and the bricks of the rebuilt Babylon inscribed with ‘Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, rebuilt civilisation’. Al-Serai Palace in Baghdad contained a museum devoted to showing how Iraq triumphed over the Allies, and Saddam’s image looked down on some of the world’s oldest artefacts throughout the Baghdad Museum. It is clear what the political agenda for these museums was. Perhaps that’s why they became a target. They were an institutional embodiment of an Iraqi history as defined by Saddam.
Thankfully, an unofficial amnesty on the return of stolen artefacts seems to be paying off, with dozens of objects being returned daily – including a seven-thousand year old Mesopotamian vase – no questions asked. It often takes time, but evidence would show that nations invariably come to the realisation that for political independence to be meaningful, it has to be buttressed by a programme of cultural identity, once intentionally erased by colonial or oppressive regimes. Disempowered indigenous populations have pursued such programmes with museums most energetically. This is a direct consequence of years of silencing and suppression of cultural identity (but also a promising sign that democratised modern museums now enter dialogues that result in partnership or direct repatriation).
Following crisis and destruction, there is a psychological and social need to find continuity between past and present, to create a sense of sequence that will enable us to cope with the chaos. This healing and impulse for preservation is a means of conceptualising and dealing with loss… which is where museums come in. The museum can offer people tangible manifestations of their identity and confidence in the value of that identity.
The imperative now is to reclaim, restore and reinterpret as many artefacts as possible, and to rebuild Iraq’s museums as democratised institutions of participation and education. Appealing to a sense of cultural identity and nationhood pre-Saddam, symbolised in the ancient artefacts of their history, may be a vital contribution to establishing a sustainable democratic future for the people of Iraq.
To help please visit www.baghdadmuseum.org.
Eleri Lynn works for English Heritage