Donny George Youkhanna on Iraqi Heritage

Mike Boehm of the LA Times has an interesting summary of the talk given by the former director of the Baghdad museum, Donny George Youkhanna, at the Bowers Museum on Sunday. It’s a troubling account. Here’s an excerpt:

“To have the museum hurt in this way, it bleeds my heart,” George said in a quiet, even voice during the opening moments of his talk and slide presentation Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Among the images worth a thousand sad words were before-and-after photographs of statuary that had been pulverized or beheaded. And there were numerous “before” photos with no “after” standing in for some of the 7,500 or objects still missing from the museum — most of them small items such as coins and cylindrical seals used to press imprints into clay tablets.

The huge projections on the auditorium’s screen during George’s 75-minute talk included views of an almost perfectly round hole left by American tank gunners above the entry arch of the Iraq Museum’s children’s wing. George said the gunners had returned the fire of Iraqis who had taken up positions on the museum’s rooftop during the U.S. ground assault to capture Baghdad in April 2003. An image from last January showed the same building, hole-free, but with one wall now marred by huge bloodstains — part of the spatter-pattern from a car bombing in the street below.

George, a stocky, graying man who speaks English fluently, is a war refugee who has landed at Stony Brook University in New York, where he is a visiting professor of anthropology. He told of how, in short order during 2006, he was stripped of his authority and forced to resign because “this institution should not be led by a Christian, it should be led by a Shiite Muslim.” Simply living in Iraq soon became untenable. His 17-year-old son received a death threat — an envelope containing a bullet and a message that accused the youth of “cursing Islam, teasing Muslim girls” and having a father who was helping the Americans.

George said that during the American ground assault on Baghdad, he and a colleague who had been baby-sitting the Iraq Museum were forced to leave for three days. When they returned, its interior looked “as if it had been hit by a hurricane.”

Initial media reports said the museum had been utterly ransacked, with 170,000 objects stolen or destroyed, but the truth was closer to 15,000. Many priceless collections, including the fabled Treasures of Nimrud, a horde of exquisitely wrought gold and jewelry, had long been secured in Iraq’s Central Bank. Still, an investigation-and-recovery task force led by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos found that looters who knew what they were looking for — and probably gained entry with help from somebody with inside knowledge — had made off with 40 prime objects on display in the galleries and more than 10,500 items that had been secreted in a basement storeroom.

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