Susannah Rutherglen: Who was to blame for the looting of the Iraq museum?

Roundup: Talking About History

The looting of the Iraq National Museum, in April 2003, was an example of "systematic cultural theft," says Susannah Rutherglen, a graduate student in art history at Princeton University. In a case study of the plunder, she examines who was responsible for the damage to the museum, whether the looting was preventable, and what the episode's cost was to the study of Mesopotamian culture.

About 13,000 items were stolen from the museum after the fall of Baghdad, Ms. Rutherglen notes. Just as disastrous was the theft of inventory records and bookkeeping devices. And while many of the stolen objects have been recovered, "the restoration of the museum's collection 'as it was' will never be possible," she says.

Part of the blame for the looting goes to the regime of Saddam Hussein, the author says. As she explains it, "when the government fell, Iraqis expressed their rage against Saddam by taking vengeance on the museum." Also at fault were "opportunistic thieves and conniving antiquities traffickers." But the damage may have been prevented, or at least minimized, she says, had American forces heeded the multiple warnings they received "that the museum would attract violent reprisal in the aftermath of an invasion."

Ms. Rutherglen says the American forces have been equally negligent at archaeological sites across Iraq, which continue to suffer from "ruinous plundering." Aerial views of the ancient Sumerian city-state of Umma, for example, "reveal a scene of surgical devastation: a dense honeycomb of cavities from which looters nightly extract thousands of artifacts," she writes.

The harm from such looting is immeasurable, says Ms. Rutherglen, and not just to the study of Mesopotamian culture, but also to the region's cultural infrastructure. "Without schools, without concert halls, without places of worship -- and without intact museums and archaeological sites -- Iraqis have nothing, no fixed core around which to reconstruct their homes and lives," she concludes. "No wonder the country's 'reconstruction' over the past three years has taken the course it has."

The article, "The Sack of Baghdad," is not online. Information about the journal is available through its publisher, the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

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