The 2003 invasion and aftermath

Five years after coalition troops invaded Iraq, the Iraq Museum is still closed, with the doorways to the storerooms bricked up, some 8,000 objects remain unaccounted for. Archaeological sites, including the iconic remains of Babylon and Ur, continue to be neglected or damaged.

American armoured vehicle guarding the Iraq MuseumMuch has already been written about damage to the Iraqi cultural heritage as a direct result of the Second Gulf War and its aftermath, and there is no doubt that much will be written in the future. Apart from the Iraqis themselves, whose testimonials we eagerly await, many foreign organizations and individuals have been involved, directly or indirectly, in what has happened.

The problem is multi-faceted. It is not just about the looting of the major museums, particularly Baghdad and Mosul, but the destruction of libraries and archives, the damage to historic buildings, the extensive looting of archaeological sites, the illicit trade in antiquities, and now the undermining of the higher education system. It is still much too early to produce a coherent account of what has happened and what is happening.

These are subjects that will occupy the attention of many people for a long time. In the meantime, it is important that those who have had some involvement, however peripheral it may seem, should set down what they know, so that in due course an accurate and reliable picture may be built up. What follows is an account of the work of just one institution, the British Museum.

Early 2003
The build-up to the war

In the build-up to the war, the British Museum was not consulted by the British Ministry of Defence, even though its staff had extensive knowledge about the Iraq Museum and its collections and the real risk of looting, as seen after the First Gulf War. (For an account of the preparations made by the MoD to safeguard the Iraqi cultural heritage, see P. Stone’s article in Antiquity vol. 79 (Dec 2005), pp. 933–43).

28 February 2003
Correspondence with the Government

Nevertheless, on 28 February 2003, John Curtis (Keeper, Department of the Middle East, British Museum) wrote a joint letter (with Professor Robert Springborg of the London Middle East Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies) to Minister of Defence Geoff Hoon, warning him of the potential danger to the cultural heritage of military action in Iraq. They wrote:

In the event of war there will inevitably be some damage (to the Iraqi cultural heritage) and it is imperative that the occupying powers should act swiftly to minimize and repair this damage. Amongst the urgent tasks will be repairs to standing monuments, prevention of looting at archaeological sites, conservation of objects in museums, and suppression of the illicit trade in antiquities and works of art.

They offered to provide whatever help might be needed to accomplish these aims. In reply a letter was sent assuring them that the MoD “will do all we can to minimise the risk of damage to all civilian sites and infrastructure”.

12 April 2003
The looting of the Iraq Museum

News of the looting of the Iraq Museum broke on 12 April 2003, when Neil MacGregor (Director, British Museum) and John Curtis were in Tehran. Dominique Collon of the British Museum called on the coalition forces to protect the Iraq Museum.

15 April 2003
Press conference

On 15 April 2003, Tessa Jowell (UK Minister of Culture, Media and Sport) attended a long organised press conference at the British Museum to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum. The meeting was dominated by the looting of the Iraq Museum, and several journalists asked angry questions about the failure of the coalition to protect museums and libraries in Baghdad.

During the meeting Nick Glass of Channel 4 News and a colleague in Baghdad set up a satellite telephone conversation between John Curtis and Donny George (Director of the Iraq Museum) who was in the Iraq Museum. Curtis was the first person outside Iraq that he had been able to speak to. He had not yet had a chance to assess the damage, but noted that the Warka Vase, the Bassetki statue and an Assyrian statue were all missing. He said the museum was still unguarded, and was being protected by local people and vigilantes.

Curtis reported to Neil MacGregor that the Museum was still unguarded, and he passed this news on to the Prime Minister's Office with a request for action. The Museum heard later that shortly after tanks were deployed to guard the Museum.

Neil MacGregor announced at the press conference that the British Museum was going to take the initiative in providing assistance to the Iraq Museum, and would act as the co-ordinator for other museums. It would send a team of three curators and six conservators.

17 April 2003
The British Museum and UNESCO

On 17 April 2003, Neil MacGregor and John Curtis attended the UNESCO conference in Paris.

22 – 28 April 2003
British Museum visit to the Iraq Museum

In the period 22 –28 April 2003, John Curtis accompanied a BBC team to Iraq. They were making a film about the looting of the Iraq Museum with Dan Cruickshank. After travelling overland from Amman, they arrived at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad at 3.00 pm on 24 April, and were met by Jabr Ibrahim, Donny George and Nawalla al-Mutawalli. They also made contact with Captain Jason Conroy, who was in charge of the site, and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who was in charge of the US investigation.

After camping outside the museum overnight, on 25 April a careful inspection of the public galleries in the Museum was made. At this stage nothing had been done to draw up a list of missing objects, and there were no realistic plans for drawing up an inventory. Everybody appeared to be still in shock. John Curtis and Donny George made a list of the major missing pieces.

On the afternoon of 26 April, George and Curtis left Baghdad bound for London, so that George could describe to the world’s media what had happened at a hastily convened press conference at the British Museum. After they left Baghdad, Dan Cruickshank and his team stayed for a few more days to make their film. When it was released in due course it suggested that the staff of the museum had in some way been complicit in the looting. John Curtis was, and still remains, quite convinced that this was not the case, and is of the view that the senior museum staff acted entirely honourably throughout this difficult period.

29 April 2003
International Support for Museums and Archaeological Sites in Iraq

On 29 April 2003 a seminar entitled ‘International Support for Museums and Archaeological Sites in Iraq’ was held at the British Museum. It was attended by Tessa Jowell, Minister of Culture, and Donny George freshly arrived from Baghdad. George gave a graphic account about the looting of the museum to many representatives of the media assembled from all around the world. It was now that the list of 47 important objects mostly missing from the galleries was made available for the first time.

Donny George made the following proposals, which were endorsed by all present:

  • Staff salaries to be paid (ORHA), and an urgent review of salary scales to be undertaken.
  • Staff numbers in State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to be restored to full strength, i.e. c. 400 archaeologists, c. 1600 guards, c. 600 technicians, i.e. c.2600 staff in whole country.
  • New equipment and facilities needed (ORHA?): cars, computers and printers, scanners, cameras, furniture throughout museum, structural repairs in Iraq Museum, showcases, security systems, climate control in museum, controlled storage, conservation laboratory, photographic studio, email network.
  • Check of sites and monuments to be undertaken by staff of Iraq Department of Antiquities and all damage to be recorded in a six-month period. In cases of war damage, results to be verified by ORHA nominees. Results of survey to be published.
  • List of objects stolen from sites and museums to be drawn up.
  • Conservation assessment (of objects in Iraqi museums) to be undertaken by senior conservator nominated by the British Museum.
  • Conservation materials to be ordered and supplied.
  • Teams of conservators to be sent to Iraq to work with local conservators.
  • Small groups of curators to be sent to Baghdad to assist with audit of objects in storerooms.
  • Training programmes to be established in conservation and archaeology.
  • Relevant books and publications to be donated to Iraqi institutions.
  • Foreign assistance in addition to ORHA to be co-ordinated through the British Museum in consultation with UNESCO and in collaboration with the Department of Antiquities.
  • The journal Sumer to resume publication as soon as possible.
  • Resumption of archaeological and ethnographic work by Department of Antiquities.
  • Resumption of archaeological work by foreign teams, following model established in 1980s but with more involvement of Iraqi colleagues.
  • A separate plan of action to be drawn up for libraries and archives.

17-18 May 2003
UN mission to Iraq

Neil MacGregor was a member of the UN mission to Iraq 17–18 May 2003, which inspected the Iraq Museum and various monuments in Baghdad, and drew up a list of recommendations.

6 June – 31 August 2003
Secondment to Baghdad

From 6 June – 31 August 2003, Sarah Collins (British Museum) was seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA, formerly ORHA) in Baghdad and worked with the Ministry of Culture acting as a liaison person between the US State Department and officials in the Iraq Museum. She earned high praise from the State Department for her efforts. For a similar period Helen MacDonald (British School of Archaeology in Iraq) was also seconded to the CPA and as well as helping the curators in the Iraq Museum sort out the damaged records she worked with the military in the Babylon area advising on the protection of ancient sites.

11 – 26 June 2003
BM visit to Iraq

In the period 11–26 June 2003, a four-person British Museum team (John Curtis, Dominique Collon, Birthe Christensen and Ken Uprichard) visited Iraq with the following objectives:

  • To assess damage and loss in the Iraq Museum.
  • To examine the circumstances of the looting.
  • To assess the conservation work needed in the Iraq Museum.
  • To assess damage and loss in the Mosul Museum.
  • To visit selected archaeological sites (Babylon, Nimrud, Nineveh and Balawat).

Following the trip to Iraq, Birthe Christensen produced a report entitled Conservation needs in Iraq Museum, Baghdad. She proposed a programme of international conservation assistance to be delivered in three phases as follows, taking into account the needs for training requested by the Iraqi conservators, and the damage assessment of objects as described in the report.

Conservation needs in Iraq Museum report
Download full report (pdf  521k)

7 July 2003
Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale
at the British Museum

A session at the 49th Rencontre Assyriologique held at the British Museum was devoted to ‘Looting and Aftermath: the Lost Heritage of Iraq’ (7 July 2003). A number of Iraqi colleagues were present. On the next day (8 July) there was a press update on the subject, attended by 16 selected journalists, and on Friday 11 July Matthew Bogdanos gave an update on the situation at the Iraq Museum.

15 January 2004
"Recent Measures to Restrict the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects"

On 15 January 2004 an open meeting of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on "Recent Measures to Restrict the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects" was held at the British Museum. There were welcoming addresses from Neil MacGregor (Director, British Museum) and Estelle Morris (Minister for the Arts), and talks by Kevin Chamberlain (legal specialist) Richard Harwood (barrister), Pierre Valentin (solicitor) and Richard Allan, MP. Estelle Morris made the interesting point that the looting of the Iraq Museum brought the illegal trade to public attention.

The main focus of the seminar was the new bill introduced by Richard Allan known as ‘The Dealing in Cultural Objects’ Act 2003. This makes it an offence to handle items that have been illegally excavated and exported after 30 December 2003. It does not specifically deal with the problem of archaeological material looted from Iraq, but UN Resolution 1483 has been adopted in the UK through the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 which came into force on 14 June 2003. This prohibits dealing in Iraqi cultural property illegally exported since 6 August 1990.

Report on "Recent Measures to Restrict the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects" open meeting
Download full report (pdf format)

27 January – 27 March 2004
Conservation training at the British Museum

Following a visit by Mrs Buthayna Hussain on 20–23 November 2003, it was agreed that three Iraqi conservators would be sent to the Museum for training. Accordingly, Buthayna Hussain and Tagried Khedher from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and Sakeina Welli from the Mosul Museum spent the period 27 January–27 March 2004 at the British Museum.

They had the opportunity to work in various sections of the conservation department (stone, metals, organics, ceramics) and were also able to consider questions such as storage, environmental conservation and testing of materials for display purposes. Pieces for them to work on were specially chosen to reflect the challenges they would face in Iraq.

While the Iraqi conservators were at the British Museum, the opportunity was taken to organise a round table conference on 19–20 February. British Museum staff and the Iraqi conservators were joined by representatives from the five world museums who had offered to help the Iraq Museum: the Berlin State Museums (Uta von Eickstadt), the State Hermitage in St Petersburg (Svetlana Burshneva) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Larry Becker, Jean-Francoise de Laperouse, Bob Koestler). Unfortunately the Louvre in Paris was not in a position to send delegates to this meeting and their apologies were accepted.

The purpose of the seminar was for the international team of conservators to establish common grounds and discuss the various issues that will be facing them in Baghdad. It was extended to cover objects in Mosul Museum, because we have been informed that it is the only museum outside Baghdad that has conservation expertise of archaeological objects.

The seminar provided an opportunity for all the parties to meet and discuss best approaches and thereby be able to give the best advice to the Iraqi colleagues on how to proceed with the conservation of damaged objects.

Particular case studies were considered in depth. This was possible because Butheyna had brought with her images of objects from the Iraq Museum, including pictures of ivories and gold from the bank and general items in both the new and old stores.

5–6 February 2004
"Not for Sale – Looted artefacts:
Making the new laws work"

On 5–6 February Irving Finkel was invited to attend this public conference which took place at the University of Geneva, hosted by the British Council. The participants included lawyers, police officers, customs officials, museum directors, ambassadors, collectors, dealers, politicians, curators, students and others.
The programme included: 1. Introducing the problem; 2. Politics, Legal Frameworks, Damage and Ethics; 3. Trading and Collecting; 4. National and International Laws and Strategies and 5. Problems Solved.
Discussions were wide-ranging and fairly uninhibited, and were largely concerned with Iraq, but other areas such as Afghanistan and Tibet were also discussed. All papers will soon be published in a volume by the British Council. The conference was also attended by a conference cartoonist, a conference poet and two bloggers, the fruits of whose labours, together with other details, can be retrieved from

Contents for the British Museum Iraq project

Site surveys 2008

The Museum and Iraq

Looting and destruction in the Iraq Museum

Stolen objects returned to the Iraq Museum

Image captions
Left: American armoured vehicle guarding the Iraq Museum
Top: Looting and destruction in the Iraq Museum
Bottom: Stolen objects returned to the Iraq Museum