Art & Iraq: Looting, a thing of the past?

Art & Iraq: Looting, a thing of the past?

Tara Parmar takes a look back at the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and the suspicious looting and cultural destruction inflicted on the National Museum of Iraq. She questions could it have been avoided?

At first thought, looting may seem like a thing of the past. But often to our surprise, centuries old artefacts continue to be stolen through times of conflict, especially in modern times. In the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, amongst the bloodshed that has marked that time, mass museum lootings were prevalent. In a time of destruction, some saw opportunity.

In the 36 hour window between the moment Iraqi militia’s abandoned the National Museum of Iraq up until the arrival of museum officials, nearly fourteen thousand artefacts were taken, many of which dated as far back as far as the 8th century.

In the days after, the amount of damage that met those museum officials was beyond comprehension, and a heartache for Iraqi culture alongside any museum lover. Not only were display cabinets emptied, smashed and thrown astray, but 2,000 year old statues were reduced to rubble, and offices were destroyed by small fires.

Using the museum as a fighting territory was either extremely poor decision making from Iraqi militia or a perfectly planned abandonment. Various observations made by the US team of investigators implied that whoever set about looting the museum did so with clear intent. Nothing appeared sporadic or impulsive.

A large metal door leading to the basement storage area was left with no visible damage, something difficult to comprehend given the fact we are supposed to believe fury-driven vandals were culpable for the lootings. The implications of there being no sign of forced entry and the fact that certain empty boxes were left untouched suggests that not only did 'they' know exactly where to look and what to look for, but they also must have had prior knowledge of security obstacles they would have to overcome.

Despite the destruction, thankfully the museum officials did have the foresight to hide nearly 8,000 of their most prized objects before evacuating the site; a location of which only 5 of the upper most officials knew. However, due to their lack of funds, no inventory existed, therefore the true extent of their loss will never be known.

The thoughtless (or perhaps all too well thought out) actions of the thieves not only robbed Iraq of its heritage, but also future Iraqi generations of their own cultural awareness. It’s one thing to understand the heritage of your homeland, but to see the sculptures and statues carved by the hands of your ancestors is another – many statues and artefacts which will now go unknown to the generations ahead; the actions of looters destroy the past as well as the future.

Had the potential of being caught been a real threat perhaps the looters would be more reluctant to act. But Iraq’s borders, where artefacts often make their exit swiftly out of the country, are vast and difficult for the already underfunded country to police. Moreover, even when artefacts do reach further borders, customs officers are rarely educated in antiquities to understand what is passing through.

Since the museums re-opening in 2015, only a third of objects have been returned. This earlier than expected re-opening responded to the ISIS destruction of sculptures in Iraq’s Mosul Museum from earlier that year. Their aim, they claimed, was to eradicate any evidence of worship that was not Muslim.

In cases such as these, it is worrying to notice how with the loss of public interest, comes the slow removal of political support, before financial support also takes itself out of the equation. But worse yet, due to other disastrous world events we are constantly too distracted by one story and onto the next to appreciate the severity of such cultural losses.

If only these scenarios could be greater prevented, it would save the heartache felt by those left with the time-consuming, and financially straining, job to recover and restore precious artefacts.

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