Emergency plan for Iraqi legacy

June 2003 -

 Unesco is doing everything possible to limit the damage the war has inflicted on Iraq’s cultural artefacts. In April the National Museum in Baghdad was plundered (see Actueel, May and March 2003). The US has donated 2 million dollars to help find missing objects. It has also pledged that Iraqis who return these artefacts will not be punished. This effort has resulted in the return of a few hundred objects, including very valuable manuscripts.

Together with the curators of the most important collections of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq, Unesco drew up an emergency plan last month. First an inventory of the missing artefacts must be drawn up. It is unclear exactly what has been stolen. A large part of the approximately 170,000 artefacts the museum had appears to have been stored in vaults and basements before the war. Some of the vault doors were so seriously damaged by the bombing that they could not be opened. Employees of the museum also stored some objects here and there to keep them safe. The museum’s administration is nowhere to be found.

Then something must be done to prevent antiquities from getting across the border undetected. Unesco will create a database in collaboration with Interpol with pictures of the stolen objects. In this context, Director-general Koichiro Matsuura called on all UN member states to support a 1970 treaty that prevents illegal traffic in art objects. A proposal that was greeted with cheers at the international archaeological Congress in Berlin. The more than 250 antiquities experts who attended the congress also appealed for a registration system for archaeological artifacts.

Moreover, the cultural institutes that suffered damage due to the war must be rebuilt and damaged art objects must be restored. An international group of museum directors will co-operate in this endeavour. Under the leadership of Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director-general of the cultural department within Unesco, a delegation travelled to Baghdad this month for an exploratory visit. The group consisted of the director of the British Museum in London, the director of the Iraqi-Italian Centre for the Preservation of Monuments, and the head of the Archaeological Mission of Japan.