First Published: 2004-02-05

 
Baghdad museum too afraid to reopen
 

Nearly a year after war, director of Iraq's National Museum is too frightened to reopen his doors to public amid insurgency.

 

Middle East Online

By Jennie Matthew - BAGHDAD

Fear of becoming a target for insurgency

Nearly a year later, experts at Iraq's National Museum still remember the horror when looters plundered thousands of treasures as they struggle to rebuild a world class collection.

Mercilessly ransacked when Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled in April, the museum remains shut, its vast exhibition rooms barren, glass cabinets smashed, antiquities defaced and the floor thick with dust.

In a building surrounded by coils of barbed wire, guarded by dozens of Facility Protection Service officers and patrolled daily by US troops, director Donny George says he is too frightened to reopen his doors to the public.

"We're really afraid that if we open the museum it will become a target for these terrorists. We have excellent material and we don't want to lose any more objects."

All small artefacts, which were evacuated before the US-led invasion last March, remain in storage. Precious metals entrusted to the Iraqi central bank even before the 1991 Gulf war are still in the vaults.

A security wall is being built behind the building after the looters stormed through the back door, tearing off with more than 14,000 objects, of which 5,000 have been seized abroad and returned, George says.

Among them are 1,000 pieces recovered in the United States, 700 in Jordan, another 500 in France and 250 in Switzerland.

But he accuses Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of continuing to drag their feet in retrieving goods secreted across their borders.

"Are they closing their borders? Are they checking? We don't know."

But the media frenzy following the April looting and Iraq's immense archaeological heritage have turned the museum into a magnet for donors. So far up to four million dollars have flooded in from across the globe.

The US State Department alone has set aside one million dollars, which coalition officials say should be enough to refurbish the building by April.

The moribund air conditioning, electricity and water systems are being repaired, walls painted, lights replaced and the plumbing worked on.

"I hope everything will be finished in two or three months," the director says, confirming that the museum will not necessarily reopen when the refurbishments are complete.

Aside from the security nightmare, George wants to make the museum one of the best in the world, which he expects to take another 18 months to two years.

Museums in Europe and the United States have sent their own experts to Baghdad and offered to collect publications to replenish its patchy archives.

"I'm so optimistic now because of the huge help we are getting from all over the world," George says, hoping an upcoming trip to Japan will bring in yet more cash.

Three Iraqis are training at the British Museum, 15 are going to France and 20 archaeologists to the United States for a five-week study tour.

For many of the last 20 years, the museum has been shut, principally during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf war.

"It's barely been functioning. It will be an opportunity for them to see how other collections work, bring ideas back and meet people," says John Russell, professor of archaeology and coalition advisor to the Iraqi culture ministry.

Stacks of special display cupboards donated by Germany for the museum's clay tablets crowd the corridors, still waiting to be unpacked.

George may be impatient for the future, but the first anniversary of the war will be difficult.

"It will be a kind of dark point in our lives. Because of him, all this happened," says George of Saddam, now in US captivity in Iraq.

 

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