Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looting of Iraq National Museum: 10 years later, did we learn anything?

Today I want to reflect on the looting of the Iraq National Museum ten years ago, as well as some of the lessons learned from that event.  Before discussing the lessons learned, I want to provide some background information.

Many scholars consider the land around the Iraq as the birthplace of civilization.  The country of Iraq sits in the region called Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers”.  The history dates to the third and fourth millennium BCE.  Sites such as Nineveh, Ur, Babylon, Ctesiphon and Hatra called Mesopotamia home.  The URUK phenomenon developed in Mesopotamia as well.  The phenomenon dates to the fourth millennium BCE and describes an event when the first cities and grand architecture arose.  Most importantly to world history, the URUK phenomenon saw the first development of writing.

In March 2003, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq.  Almost immediately, looters systematically began destroying Iraq’s rich history and artifacts began appearing on the art market.  In April 2003, news broke about the looting of the Iraq National Museum and archaeological sites around the country.  Parallel to the current events in Syria and Egypt, when a centralized government collapses, chaos can ensue and people can begin destroying symbols of the previous government’s power (refer back to my discussion about symbolic capital a few posts ago).  

In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein funded archaeological excavations and the reconstruction of archaeological sites like Babylon as symbols of his power.  According to Roger Atwood, Saddam Hussein cast himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar, the sixth century BCE ruler of Babylon who laid siege to Jerusalem and expelled the Jews in 587 BCE (2004:5).  Hussein even inscribed his name in the bricks of Babylon following the tradition of Babylonian rulers.

In early 2003, sources reported the looting of the Iraq National Museum.  Looters stole around 8000 objects.  According to Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the Marines, looters stole famous objects from the museum, such as the Warka Vase dating to the fourth millennium BCE and the carved female head of the goddess Inanna, called the Warka Mask (Bogdanos 2005: 2).

Ten years later, the Iraq National Museum remains closed.  Antiquities officials struggle to repair the damage from the looting and a decade of neglect.  Out of thirty original exhibition halls, only five have been restored (  

According to an article by CNN in 2011, in order to recover looted artifacts, the museum began paying smugglers to return looted objects (   I stand with UNESCO that we cannot pay for the return of looted artifacts because it promotes and encourages more looting.

Today there are cultural heritage efforts, and Iraq now has the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, which provides training opportunities for the Iraqis in cultural heritage.  On the tenth anniversary of the looting, the U.S. State Department (  issued a press release:
Commemorating a Decade of U.S.-Iraqi Collaboration in Renewing the Iraq Museum

Media Note
Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
April 10, 2013


For ten years, the U.S. Department of State has been working closely with Iraqi counterparts and American academic and nonprofit institutions to protect, preserve, and display the rich cultural heritage of Iraq. Cultural heritage cooperation is a major pillar of the Iraq-U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement, reflecting the high value both nations place on this irreplaceable resource.
A major continuing effort has focused on the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, where looting in April 2003 left the facility physically damaged and an unsafe environment for both staff and the Museum’s collections. In summer 2003, State Department personnel were among the first responders to the museum’s needs, providing replacement photographic equipment, office furniture, and supplies. An assessment in autumn 2003 conducted by experts in museum security, environmental control, conservation, and information technology initiated a 2004 project of major improvements to the museum’s physical plant, IT capabilities, and security.
This assessment also laid the groundwork for the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, a $12.9 million initiative developed and funded by the State Department, and implemented by the nonprofit International Relief and Development from 2008 to 2011. This project rehabilitated and furnished 11 of the museum’s public galleries, a 3-story collections storage facility, and the conservation labs, as well as providing a new roof and upgraded climate control systems.
Along with physical improvements to the building, the State Department sponsored and organized trainings for museum staff as part of its comprehensive approach to partnering with Iraqis in the preservation of their cultural heritage. In 2004, the Department funded a special five-week “Cultural Heritage Institute” through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, to bring 22 Iraqi museum staff to the Smithsonian Institution for training in museum management, conservation, and curatorial practices. In 2009-2010, the Department’s Iraq Cultural Heritage Project also provided training for 20 museum professionals from throughout Iraq at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, covering topics from exhibit design and museum education to archaeological site excavation and stabilization.
Funding for these projects was provided through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Heritage Center and Office of Academic Exchanges, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, and private foundations. Images and more information about other cultural heritage projects in Iraq can be found here.
Media contact: Susan Pittman,, (202) 632-6373.

Although we claim that we learned a lesson from the looting of the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites, I do believe it will not prevent looting in other cases, take Egypt, Syria, and Libya for example.  With the looting in Iraq, the coalition forces failed to secure cultural sites, and I hope that in the future, if U.S. forces invade another county, they will take the protection of cultural sites into consideration. 

 It is important to secure and protect cultural sites when invading another country if one hopes to win the allegiance of its citizens.  You will not gain allies by lending to the destruction of sites they hold dear.  Many Iraqis blamed U.S. forces for destroying sites (the army built a base on the site of Ur), and that only led to distrust of the U.S.

Again, I really hope we learned something from the looting of the Iraq National Museum.