Without question the invasion of Iraq has produced tremendous theft from Museums, as well as illegal excavation. It has been five years since the Iraqi National Museum was ransacked. At the time, reports were too-quick to judge the damage, and many outlets reported that as many as 170,000 objects had been taken. As it turns out, present estimates indicate that perhaps 15,000 objects were taken, and of that number a still-disheartening half are missing. Plus, the museum itself still seems a long way from opening its doors.
Last week, at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center held a panel discussion, “Antiquities Under Siege,” to examine the ongoing situation in Iraq. The event is in conjunction with the publication of Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, edited by Lawrence Rothfield. I haven’t yet had a chance to read this, but the work aims to look at went went wrong with the protection of Iraqi heritage, and what can be done better in the future. Also last week, there was an exhibition called “Catastrophe!” at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum.
Setting aside the issue of whether the invasion was even an acceptable course of action, it seems to me a straightforward problem arose, which was entirely predictable. Looting of art and cultural sites is an inevitable outflow of armed conflict, and where the US and coalition forces did not have nearly enough troops to accomplish what they had intended, looting of all kinds occurred.
Below is a riveting interview with a couple of journalists, John Burns and Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. If you pick up the interview at just before the 40-minute mark, Filkins is describing the theft of Arabian horses on April 9, 2003 from the Iraqi Olympic headquarters right in front of American marines. There were only 7,000 troops policing an area where Saddam had had 250,000.
There’s another very interesting article in the Sunday Times by John Curtis of the British Museum who had conducted digs in Iraq in the past, and who flew to Baghdad on April 22 with reporters from the BBC:
Files, papers, index cards, photographs, films and computer software had all been swept off the shelves and onto the floor. It seemed that the intention had been to start bonfires, but fortunately this did not happen. All the safes in the building had been broken open. It was also clear that the intruders had broken into the storerooms, but at this stage nobody had been inside to assess the extent of the losses. There has been much speculation as to whether the looting that took place was spontaneous or organised – and who, precisely, was behind it. Theories have ranged from the involvement of Ba’athist loyalists, determined to cause maximum civilian unrest, to the connivance of international antique-dealers, requesting items to be stolen to order. Five years on, these questions remain unanswered. The whereabouts of looted material is also hotly disputed. There is clearly a black market in Iraqi antiquities, but where the pieces have ended up is not yet known.
The Baghdad museum suffered theft which has been well-documented, but a number of other sites have been damaged at the hands of coalition forces and looters, including the looting of a museum in Mosul, and the damage at Babylon. Coalition forces are finally now being educated and informed, but there is a continuous problem of widespread looting in more remote regions.
I think it is great that more attention is being paid to Iraqi Heritage at the 5-year anniversary. However this looting and theft will continue into the foreseeable future. Policing of sites is important, however that seems incredibly difficult given the security situation in the country. Perhaps we could continue to make sure the appropriate penalties are in place for buying and selling these objects as both the US and the UK have done; but the looting appears to be ongoing. Buyers all over the world seem inclined to buy these objects, and this demand will likely continue to make it profitable to steal objects and illegally excavate sites.