Baghdad’s Reopened Museum Battles Bombs, Sparse Attendance

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By Peter Schwartzstein , National Geographic
Iraq’s flagship museum welcomes visitors for the first time in 12 years as jihadists continue to destroy the country’s cultural heritage.
At the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, visitors walk toward the winged bull statues in the Assyrian gallery, which also houses ancient reliefs and a mural made with more than 300 glazed bricks.

Standing before two priceless winged bull statues, Raimon Daniel struggled to compose himself before delivering a verdict on the recently reopened Iraqi National Museum.

“It’s sad when your history can mostly fit in one room,” he said, as he surveyed a series of massive marble reliefs depicting Mesopotamian history.

As imposing remnants of a lost civilization, the artifacts stir visitors who venture deep into the museum’s cavernous galleries. But as an Assyrian who’s seen the Islamic State overrun his culture’s ancient heritage, gutting the ruins of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra in northern Iraq, Daniel was deeply moved by the display. “Coming here, this is getting back at the jihadists,” the recent university graduate said, holding back tears.

The museum, which has been mostly shuttered since it was looted in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, reopened in late February, barely 48 hours after jihadists from the Islamic State group smashed exhibits in the Mosul museum’s collection and broadcast images of that carnage to the world.

Three months later, however, and the museum is struggling to attract visitors. Some Baghdad residents insist they aren’t aware of its existence, despite a much publicized ceremony to mark the occasion, while others have stayed away because of a recent uptick in terrorist attacks—one of which struck a nearby café—that has persuaded many to cut down on nonessential movement.

Picture of the damaged interior of the Iraqi National Museum in 2003

After the museum was looted in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Mushin Hasan, who was then the museum’s deputy director, grieves as he surveys the wreckage.
Photograph by Mario Tama, Getty

The museum is on a busy, exposed site near government ministries that are frequently targeted by jihadist suicide bombers and car bombers. Security officials, including the black- and blue-clad special forces soldiers who guard the exterior fence, say it’s a challenge to protect a building with major thoroughfares on two of its flanks.

Ahmed Kamel, director general of museums, is cagey when asked about security, but he admits the location poses challenges and says the government is committed to a plan to move to a 50-acre site on the city’s outskirts. In the meantime, however, Kamel says he is confident that current security arrangements could prevent an attack like the one that killed 21 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia in March.

“We trust first in God, but then there’s a lot of security in and outside the museum. We have cameras; we have guards,” he said, gesturing to the roof, where soldiers with machine guns nestle behind sandbags. “We’ll be fine.”

Coming here, this is getting back at the jihadists.

‘It’s Vital That Iraqis Come’

For those warily watching the developments in Iraq, February seemed an unusual moment to throw open the doors of one of the country’s leading institutions. But that was precisely the point, government officials insisted. With the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, demolishing relics from thousands of years of civilization, this was the time to defy terrorism by showcasing the country’s remaining cultural wealth.

The museum houses pottery dating to 5000 B.C., much of it excavated in Islamic State–threatened Diyala Province, and a modern replica of the stone of Hammurabi on which the Babylonian king had his laws and code of conduct inscribed. There are 100,000-year-old flint tools and a pair of 4,000-year-old stone lions that flanked the entrance to the Tell Harmal Temple in a Baghdad archaeological site. They have been extensively repaired since a looter severed one of the heads in 2003.

“This is for all Iraqis,” Ahmed Kamel said. “If ISIS destroys the museum in Mosul, you can come visit in Baghdad.”

Sitting in his spacious office near some of the institution’s storerooms, he insists that all has gone according to plan so far. “It has been successful due to two years of serious preparation,” he said. “This is what happens when a country stabilizes a little. People start going to the cinema, to the theater, or to the museum.”

Picture of the Iraqi National Museum being guarded by US forces in 2003

An American tank moves into position outside the museum in April 2003, after it was looted. Officials estimate that more than 5,000 objects were stolen.
Photograph by Gleb Garanich, Reuters

Few Baghdadis appear to share his rosy assessment, though.

Guides and curators say the museum has averaged about 300 visitors a day since it reopened, or around 9,000 for the month, which is far short of Kamel’s claim that it attracted more than a million in March.

Those who do brave the risks of terrorist attacks and the traffic, which is snarled by regular checkpoints, say they are thrilled to see the museum’s collection, which has been largely closed to the public for the past 20 years.

“For so long we haven’t been able to see our antiquities,” said Avaaz Turkmani, a medical student who was one of a dozen locals at the museum one morning in mid-April. “But this is our great civilization here, and it’s vital that Iraqis come and see this.”

For so long we haven’t been able to see our antiquities. But this is our great civilization here, and it’s vital that Iraqis come and see this.

Sanctions designed to stifle the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein wrecked the economy in the 1990s and pushed the museum’s entry fee beyond the reach of most Iraqis. Officials say they set the current ticket price at 1,500 Iraqi dinars (U.S. $1.25) to ensure the museum attracts people from all walks of life.

The destruction in Islamic State–held territory has underscored the importance of the museum’s collection, which preserves extraordinary artifacts from northern Iraq that would likely have succumbed to the jihadists’ penchant for destroying religious and cultural treasures. Among them are a highly ornate mihrab, indicating in which direction Muslims ought to pray, from the 13th-century mosque of Panja ‘Ali in Mosul, and several vases decorated with flowers and Koranic verses from the city’s shrine of Imam al-Bahir.

Some staff members from the Mosul museum fled south and now have offices in the National Museum, where they’re trying to document what’s been lost.

Disappearing Artifacts

Iraqi heritage experts are, for the most part, encouraged by the museum’s reopening, but few are impressed by its administration, which won’t open the museum on weekends due to staff shortages and has made few upgrades to the collection or the facilities. Allegations of theft from within the museum and poor organization also have tainted the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which administers Iraq’s heritage sites.

“It’s more a teaching museum than a modern museum,” said Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, an archaeologist and lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Obviously, the political situation hasn’t helped. And a lot of the time it was not safe to do anything. But I just don’t think there’s enough expertise either.”

Picture of people waiting to enter the Iraqi National Muse

The museum, located in an area that has seen frequent terrorist attacks, has struggled to attract visitors despite its still impressive collection of antiquities.
Photograph by Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty

Al-Gailani said, however, that the museum’s shortcomings are understandable. “The whole Ministry of Antiquities went through three wars,” she said. “In 1991 the provincial museums were looted, and so things were sent to Baghdad, but then in 2003 it was the Baghdad museum that was looted!”

The few changes made to the displays were largely forced by rampant looting, as members of the public—along with antiquities officials, according to heritage experts—seized upon the chaos of the invasion, during which the U.S. Army failed to protect the museum, to steal an estimated 5,000 objects.

A dedicated unit within the ministry continues to pursue lost items, but without a comprehensive inventory, it’s unclear what’s missing.

Even now artifacts from the museum still crop up elsewhere. Last August two objects disappeared from the Babylonian gallery, according to Saad Eskander, who until recently served as director general of the National Library. “No one,” he said, “did anything until one lady, who was retiring, reported the truth. It was one big cover-up.”

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