Thursday, September 10, 2009

Concerns Expressed About Iraq Museum Preparedness

History will show that angry mobs looted the Iraq Museum because the local Shia community viewed the cultural landmark as just another outpost of the hated Baathist regime.

Whoever was actually responsible, the archaeological community certainly took advantage of the tragedy. For example, Western governments were shamed into providing millions of dollars to support the museum and Iraqi archaeology.

But could have the tragedy been averted? Has all that money been wisely spent? Could it happen again?

An individual well-qualified to speak on the situation has raised some serious issues on these subjects on the Iraq Crisis List.

Here is that individual's post in its entirety:

Dear All,

Before you read my thoughts below regarding the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) and the National Museum of Iraq, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Zainab Abdul Jabar Mohammed Alzubaidi, and I worked for thirteen years in the SBAH. Most of my work was conducted within the Excavations and Investigations Department. The last position I occupied after the 2003 invasion was Office Manager to the General Manager Office of the Excavations and Investigations Department. I was fortunate enough to work with two of the best Iraqi Archaeologists, Zuhiar Rajab and Burhan Shakir. In addition, I was able to participate in a re-exhibition of the Iraq Museum in 1999 and was a member of committees responsible for securing the artifacts at the Iraq Museum, before the American invasion in 2003. I hold master’s Degree in Anthropology, and I recently earned my second master’s Degree in Museum Studies from New York University (NYU). I am currently a consultant at Columbia University (New York) and a visitor guide at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (New York).

As Lamia Al-gailani Werr mentioned, the Iraq Museum until now–had no emergency preparedness plan. Although the National Museum of Iraq was threatened several times before it was badly looted in 2003, none of the SBAH managers thought to create a simple emergency plan. In fact, they were unaware of how to protect the museum’s collections. I was a witness to the fruitless and inadequate emergency plan of 2003. Unfortunately, until now, the Iraq Museum staff had no knowledge of serious threats to the collections. They required help to establish an emergency plan, according to the collections’ needs and conditions.

In my thesis for the Museum Studies Program, I analyzed and researched the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum, and I highlighted the museum staff’s complicity, in addition to the invaders’ and international organizations’ responsibilities. Then, I proposed guidelines for the Iraq Museum staff to help them to develop an emergency preparedness plan, in addition to some suggestions regarding the protection of the collections in the case of unexpected events, as mentioned by Lamia Al-gailani. I can say confidently that the Iraq Museum and the SBAH managers during 2003 were responsible for the damage that was incurred. In fact, the 2003 invasion revealed the poor management of the SBAH and the Iraq Museum. We cannot place all the responsibility on coalition forces because the SBAH managers were responsible for much of the tremendous loss and damage of the museum’s collections. I believe that the 2003 looting disaster could occur again, since the Iraq Museum and the SBAH have not yet developed an emergency plan.

Though there are many projects conducted to help the SBAH and the Iraq Museum, there is no clear understanding of the urgent need to protect the SBAH and museum collections. All these programs and projects deal with other issues that are of less importance right now. As a result, millions of dollars have been spent with little to no impact on the SBAH’s or the Iraq Museum’s operations, except the Italian projects and the projects of the University of Chicago. I admit that the SBAH’s staff needs to be further developed, but we also need immediate assistance to develop an emergency plan that builds on strong research and determines the collections’ conditions and potential exterior threats.

Furthermore, a large part of the Iraq Museum’s collection is currently at risk for damage because of poor storage conditions. This also requires an emergency plan. In fact, what we have no already lost due to looting or vandalism will be destroyed by inappropriate and poor storage conditions.

Furthermore, for those who are unaware of these facts, the SBAH staff lacks the necessary techniques for dealing with artifacts, employing proper storage methods, documentation and registration, computerizing databases, as well as access to modern computer programs that would improve the SBAH’s and Iraq Museum’s operations. Since the end of the 1970s, the SBAH has not kept abreast of modern archaeology and museum techniques. This is partially due to the political situation in Iraq at that time; the country was essentially under lockdown, as nobody was authorized to enter or travel outside, except for managers in government departments. However, unqualified managers are also to blame for these issues.

The SBAH and the Iraq Museum depend heavily upon extremely obsolete methods and documentation practices; SBAH’s documentation should be used for a museum display, rather than daily functional purposes. These documents were the achievements of Taha Baker and his generation of Iraqi archaeologists. The SBAH and the Iraq Museum stopped improving upon this documentation system since the end of the 1970s. In other words, all of the SBAH managers since then have been unqualified to maintain the organization. Today, a new generation of Iraqi archaeologists leads the SBAH and the Iraq Museum, but they need help to raise the standard of the Iraqi archaeology field and museum industry. They require immediate help to establish an emergency plan, not just for the museum collections, but for the collections of other departments with the SBAH.

In response to those who believe that the ex-managers of the SBAH and the Iraq Museum were qualified, I would like to raise the following questions:

· Why did neither the SBAH nor the Iraq Museum implement an emergency plan, although they were under the same threats during the 1980s and 1990s?
· Why is there no electronic inventory for the museum collections, although a computer lab was established at the SBAH in 1995 with new computers?
· Why are there no computer databases for the documents belonging to the Archive Department, Microfilm Department, Photograph Department, Excavation Department, and other departments of the SBAH, despite the fact that these documents contain the most valuable information about the SBAH excavations and other works, and are at the risk of damage and loss?
· Why has the SBAH system not been updated since the 1970s until now?
· What are the achievements of the Department of Antiquities and Heritage managers during the 1980s and 1990s?
· What are the achievements of the seven general managers after 1999, when the Department of Antiquities and Heritage became the State Board?
· Why has the entire SBAH system (excavations, Sumer Magazine, research projects, studies, investigation of new and unregistered archaeological sites, and other important SBAH works) been slow and inadequate since the end of the 1970s, although Saddam Hussein gave the archaeology field a unique opportunity?

If somebody argues that the facts above were caused by wars and embargo, I would respond that this assumption is incorrect. Wars and embargo were used to conceal the weak and poor management of the SBAH departments. The real answer to the previous questions is bad management; managers were unqualified and irresponsible. However, some of them studied outside Iraq and traveled several times during the year. Thus, these managers maintained very strong relationships with outside scholars, and they are familiar with archaeological institutions in other countries. Though they could have requested help in order to improve the SBAH work, they did not work effectively to improve and update the SBAH operations. The managers who boast now about their accomplishments are exaggerating. I became more fully aware of the poor management of the SBAH and the Iraq Museum after my involvement in the Museum Studies Program at NYU. I had taken several courses about museum management, in addition to work in several museums in New York City. The SBAH, the Iraq Museum, and their staff were victims of irresponsible managers.

I ask anyone who got my massage to think about what I have mentioned and to research the SBAH and its management. It is very easy for anyone to present himself as a hero, but is this presentation factual? I ask you to compare what some ex-managers claim against their actual accomplishments.

Now, the SBAH and the Iraq Museum are in urgent need of an EMERGINCY PREPERDNESS PLAN in order to cope with the current unstable situation in Iraq. This emergency plan needs intensive research and study of the collections and their needs. It will be shameful to repeat the mistakes of 1991 and 2003. Both plans from 1991 and 2003 were extemporaneous and developed without any prior research or study. As a result, a large part of the hidden collections in 1991 were damaged to inappropriate securing methods, and later, a large portion of the collections was lost in 2003 because the plan was deeply flawed. Today, the Iraq Museum’s collections and the valuable documents of the SBAH Departments are at risk of loss and damage.

As an Iraqi who worked in this institution, I urge specialists, international organizations, and other relevant parties to assist the SBAH and the Iraq Museum in creating an emergency preparedness plan. It is illogical to plan to establish labs and supply the SBAH library with modern publications, while the SBAH’s collections are at risk due to the lack of an emergency preparedness plan.

Please see the attached file:

- Plan for the SBAH and Iraq Museum. I recently created this plan to help in developing the SBAH and the Iraq Museum operations and staff. I have already submitted the plan to the Iraqi Embassy and the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, from whom I have received positive feedback.

[the plan itself was posted on the Iraq Crisis List. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is presumably the involved entitity within the State Department]


Zainab Mohammed
A Consultant at Columbia University, New York
A Visitor Guide at BMA, New York

1 comment:

Chuck Jones said...

The archive location of the original of this message at IraqCrisis is: