Curator: Situation at the Baghdad Museum is bleak but looting decreases

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Five years ago Coalition forces invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The main attack began on 20 March 2003, although it was not until three weeks later that US troops entered the capital. In the chaos that followed, the Baghdad Museum was looted extensively, from 10 to 12 April. This provoked an international outcry because the Americans had failed to protect the museum, one of the most important in the Middle East. Roughly 16,000 antiquities were stolen, of which, about half were eventually recovered....

For an overview of the current situation, we interviewed Dr John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East at the British Museum. He is among the best-informed outside specialists on the country’s archaeology and has visited Iraq four times since Hussein’s overthrow, at considerable personal risk. Dr Curtis has also been deeply involved in international efforts to help Iraqi colleagues protect their museums and sites.

The Art Newspaper: Five years after the looting, what is the situation at the Baghdad Museum?

John Curtis: It is still bleak. At least 8,000 objects are still missing, although we don’t know the precise number. Among the very important items are the ivory plaque of a lioness and almost the whole collection of cylinder seals.

A lot of the material now in store is in very bad condition. Material was thrown off the shelves during the looting, and trampled under foot. Environmental conditions inside the museum are not what they ought to be. It was very damp in June 2003, when I was there with British Museum conservators. This is very bad for ivories, cuneiform tablets and metal objects. In 2006-07 the doors had been sealed for security reasons and this may well have made conditions even damper. When the museum was unsealed last autumn, fortunately it was found that there had been no flooding or plague of rats....

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