Ann Hitchcock: The 6 Lessons We Should Learn from Iraq About Historic Preservation at a Time of War

Ann Hitchcock,"Through the Fog of War in Iraq: Lessons Learned in Heritage Preservation", at the George Wright Forum:

... Some Lessons Learned

After lending a helping hand in a disaster, a natural response is to consider, “What if this happened to us? How would we fare? What lessons can be learned?” Professionals managing museums, libraries, archeological sites, and other heritage resources, who ask these questions and look through the “fog of war” in Iraq, will find many poignant lessons emerging. Beyond the six lessons suggested below, additional heritage preservation lessons will emerge for those who seek them from the events in Iraq. Whether the lessons are new or old, they are worthy of review and contemplation in the context of the preservation of Iraqi cultural heritage.

Lesson 1: Museums, libraries, and sites are symbols of authority. As symbols of the ruling authority, museums, libraries, and historic sites are targets for those fighting against that authority. Although personal profit motivated much of the looting at the Iraqi National Museum, anger at Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Ba’athist Party was also a factor. As Donny George said:

The people saw the Americans firing on the gates of Saddam’s palaces and then opening the doors to the people and saying: ‘Come and take this stuff, it’s yours now.’ So they started, and it became a sort of rage as they attacked every government building. I don’t make excuses but, you know, after 30 years of a regime like that, pressure builds up on people. Most of them were not educated, andto them the museum was just one more government building. They didn’t just take antiquities but 95% of the office furniture, all computers, most of the cameras. My office was two feet deep in papers; my desk was broken into three pieces and I found my chair 100 yards away."
As symbols of authority throughout history, museum collections have been traditional war booty. Saddam Hussein demonstrated this lesson when, six weeks after invading Kuwait, Iraq seized collections from the Kuwait National Museum and shipped them to Baghdad for storage in the Iraqi National Museum. Iraq subsequently returned the collections under terms of a United Nations resolution. After castles, many of which have become museums, museums became the traditional place to store a national treasure. There can be little doubt that they are symbols of the ruling authority.

Similarly, archeological sites are part of a country’s cultural patrimony; they are protected by law and are symbols and targets. Saddam Hussein left little doubt about his understanding of this principle, when he rebuilt the ancient cities of Babylon and Nineveh in an attempt to validate his regime. When he learned that original Babylonian bricks were stamped with the name “Nebuchadnezzar II” and the equivalent of “605 BC,” he wanted a similar statement on reconstruction bricks acknowledging his role. They say, “In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him, the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.”

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) greatly increased the security at its iconic sites, such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and the Washington Monument, which are highly vulnerable symbols of the United States. In recent years, managers of museums and national sites have needed no reminding of this vulnerability. Likewise, the museums in Iraq learned this lesson long ago. The staff has evacuated the collections of the National Museum many times, beginning with the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s.35 Although U.S. museums and sites have increased their security, few would be able to implement evacuation plans on the scale of and in the timeframe demonstrated by the Iraqi National Museum.

Lesson 2: Early news of war or disaster is often wrong (in unpredictable ways). “It is very common for the first information following a crisis to be wrong, and when I say wrong, I mean wrong. So let us all try to be responsible in how we speak about this issue until we know the facts, and let us dedicate ourselves to gathering the facts as expeditiously and efficiently as possible,” said the secretary general of the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO) –Interpol when he addressed the May 6 meeting on cultural property looting in Iraq.

Acting precipitously based on early news can be a political liability, a step in the wrong direction that will have to be retraced, and a catalyst for disharmony with other parties who are critical to the resolution. All of these mistakes occurred in the Iraqi National Museum case.

The first news reports, on April 12 and in the weeks following, erroneously reported that looters had taken 170,000 artifacts from the National Museum. This figure was followed by reported figures of 50,000, 270,000, 90,000, 200,000, 1,200, 10–15%, and fewer than 100 before U.S. and Iraqi museum officials clarified the original misunderstanding. By mid-May Colonel Bogdanos called 170,000 a “gross, if dramatic, exaggeration.”

Museum authorities were reported as “blaming shoddy reporting amid the ‘fog of war’ for creating the impression that the majority of the institution’s 170,000 items had been looted.”38 As Donny George explained:

There was a mistake. Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war, we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the showcases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move.

Following these announcements, the numbers on missing items that U.S. and Iraqi museum authorities cited were similar, and evolving at the same rate. As of the end of July, that figure was estimated at 13,50040 and remained at that level into September.

Within a week of the looting, three members of the president’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee had resigned. The chairman’s letter of resignation cited “the wanton and preventable destruction” of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities.42 Immediately, following the first news, scholars sought to explain the magnitude of the looting of the National Museum by comparing it with other major cultural disasters. It was called the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years. Several scholars said that not since the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 had there been looting on this scale.43 The American Schools of Oriental Research compared the museum looting to “the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors.” One commenter said it is “a tragedy that has no parallel in world history; it is as if the Uffizi, the Louvre, or all the museums of Washington DC had been wiped out in one fell swoop.”44 Now that the figures have been drastically revised downward and the “fog” is beginning to clear, some have expressed second thoughts about these comparisons.45 Some journalists—and, according to reports, at least one professional colleague— have been critical of the Iraqi museum officials for not correcting the misunderstanding about the 170,000 items sooner. A defensive backlash from some parts of the press sought to discredit both the Iraqi museum authorities and the scholars who had commented on the early news, and even pit one against the other. A few individuals took the bait and some strong words were exchanged. One journalist reported, “[Donny] George is now quoted as saying that that items lost could represent ‘a small percentage’ of the collection and blamed shoddy reporting for the exaggeration.” A scholar, who heard Donny George speak at the British Museum at the end of April, commented, “Is it not a little strange that quite so many journalists went away with the wrong impression, while Mr. George made little or no attempt to clarify the context of the figure of 170,000 which he repeated with such regularity and gusto before, during, and after that meeting.”46 Other scholars responded in letters to the editor:

[The reporter] would have us believe that unscrupulous, Ba’athist curators of the Iraq museum in Baghdad have deliberately overplayed the pillaging and destruction on April 9-11.... At no time did George claim ... that the entire contents of the museum had gone ... our high opinion of the character of Dr. George and hiscolleagues has been formed over two decades of working with them.... George deserves the world’s praise, not its condemnation, for saving so many of Iraq’s treasures....

Cultural heritage professionals are in the position of both releasing information to the press, as the Iraqi museum authorities did, and reacting to information that others release, as American, European, and other scholars and professionals did in response to the news of the Iraqi museum looting. Care must be taken not to succumb to the immediate questions of the press seeking to fill the public’s 24/7 appetite for facts, figures, and opinions, especially ones that create “shock and awe” and will make headlines. Knowing that the first news is often wrong, waiting for the “fog of war” to lift before making definitive decisions or statements may be prudent. If, however, a statement is incorrect or misinterpreted, an immediate correction is in order to avert the ballooning of misunderstandings and hard feelings. In addition, designating a single person or office in the museum as a primary point of contact with the press is essential to ensure consistency of information.

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