By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 251, November 2013
The directors of Iraq’s two main museums are hopeful that the day is in sight when their institutions will be open. The museums in Baghdad and Basra have been closed for more than two decades, depriving a generation of Iraqis of their heritage. Last month, during a visit to London, Amira Edan, the director of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, told us that she hopes her institution will reopen to visitors next year. And Qahtan Al Abeed, the director of the Basra Museum, said that he expects his institution will open in the spring of 2015. However, the other major museum in Iraq, in Mosul, remains closed. Much of its collection was looted in 2003 and reopening could well be years away.
Iraq’s museums shut during the 1991 Gulf War and then remained closed. The Baghdad museum eventually reopened briefly in 2000, but closed again in late 2002, a few months before the US-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. At present the museum is only accessible to VIPs and educational groups. The old Basra Museum has been shut throughout the entire period.
The main obstacle given to reopening the Baghdad museum is the lack of a new entrance building, needed to strengthen security and provide facilities, such as a café. Initially it was to be a replica of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon, but this idea was dropped as it was thought to be too gimmicky. Building work has now started on a more conventional entrance building. The tense security situation in Baghdad has also contributed to the decade-long delay.
Most of the Baghdad museum’s curatorial and administrative staff of 130 are working on a database of the collection, which Eden said numbers more than 500,000 objects (around half are antiquities and the remainder individual coins). Only 50,000 items have been added to the database after years of work, so at this rate it will take many decades to complete. The labelling of antiquities in the galleries is rudimentary and needs improving.
New use for dictator’s palace
In Basra, a new museum is being created in a former lakeside palace of Saddam Hussein. The first phase of the building work involving the palace’s exterior and installing security measures was completed a year ago, but the second phase has been delayed because the lengthy process of electing a new governor for Basra province has slowed down the tender process. Qahtan Al Abeed said that the museum’s interior should be completed in a year.
The Basra project is expected to cost $5m, of which just over half is coming from the provincial government. The remainder has been raised by the London-based Friends of Basra Museum, with a substantial contribution from the energy company BP. The British Museum is also assisting with staff training and advice.
Al Abeed is discussing loans with the Baghdad museum. In 1991, the old Basra Museum was looted, although 700 antiquities from the region were saved. These were sent to Baghdad for safekeeping and will soon be returning to the new museum.
The new Basra museum has an increased remit, so as well as antiquities from the rest of Iraq, there will be galleries about Sumer, Babylon and Ashur. In total, Al Abeed hopes to borrow 1,500 to 2,000 items from Baghdad. He is building what he hopes will be “a mini national museum”.
The Iraqi government also has long-term plans to create a Grand National Museum on the western outskirts of Baghdad, on the former Muthanna military airbase, which was largely destroyed by American bombing in 2003. The Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid is in discussions over designing the project. If this proceeds, the existing Baghdad museum would be used to display Islamic art and ethnography.