Six months ago it was unthinkable but now curators and historians alike celebrate as most of the Iraqi national museum’s original artefacts go back on display
Today the shelled, looted, bullet scarred and blockaded national museum of Iraq opens its doors again, with most of its greatest treasures safe and on display once more.
It is a remarkable feat. Even six months ago, when the antiquities department began to bring in small groups of specialists and journalists to see what had once been one of the world’s greatest and most famous collections, whole galleries were still wrapped up in plastic sheeting and the security situation was judged too precarious even to speculate on an opening date.
After the invasion of Iraq, the museum’s shuttered facade, punched by a tank shell, became a symbol of the destruction in war to museum curators and archaeologists around the world. .
In the security meltdown that was Baghdad, the building was judged too dangerous even for its own surviving staff, and its outspoken former director, Donny George, fled into exile after he found a paper wrapped bullet lying at the doorstep of his home — a potent death threat against his family.
During the war the building was left defenceless and for three days it was ransacked as an American tank stood by useless because its crew had no orders to intervene.
Today, many galleries are still closed and hundreds of objects are still undergoing delicate conservation work – including some of the exquisitely carved Nimrud ivories, thought safe from the bombs in a bank vault but damaged by sewage-contaminated flooding as water pumps failed. Although visitors are unlikely to notice, thousands of objects are still missing and unlikely ever to be recovered.
In the joyful headlines over the recovery of iconic pieces such as the 5,500-year-old Warka Mask, a serenely enigmatic alabaster head smiling faintly at the absurdities of human folly, it was almost overlooked that thousands of small metal and clay pieces, inscribed tablets and amulets, seal cylinders, easy to smuggle, hard to trace, of little commercial value but priceless to historians, have almost certainly gone for ever.
The Warka Mask was recovered by the Americans after a tip-off, wrapped in rags and buried in farmland outside Baghdad. It is believed to have changed hands several times after it was stolen. The Warka Vase, a magnificently carved tall alabaster vase from the same period, snapped off at the base to steal it from its gallery, came back to the museum in pieces, wrapped in a blanket, in the boot of a car.
Many pieces were voluntarily returned by people who claimed to have held them for safe keeping. That may have been true in some cases but archaeologists believe that many were simply so famous they could neither be sold nor displayed.
That is not true of the little scraps of history, less beautiful but more precious to the experts: the poems and spells, star charts and family histories, shopping lists and tax bills inscribed on scruffy little lozenges of mudbrick or cough drop sized cylinder seals, which seeped out through Iraq’s borders into the world’s antiquities markets.
“I’m not aware of any major recovery of these pieces,” said Irving Finkel, curator of the current exhibition on Ancient Babylon at the British Museum.
“I’m not holding my breath for one.”
Finkel can read Babylonian cuneiform, and the treasures in his exhibition include a broken tablet recording Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597BC, and a cylinder seal from 1300 BC, illustrating a ziggurat, almost certainly the origin of that wonder of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
There must be answers to gaps in the story of his exhibition in the thefts from the Baghdad museum — including objects never even catalogued, never mind published.
But today curators such as Finkel are celebrating. The museum is open. Tomorrow the work of patchworking together lost history resumes.