TCS Daily

Iraq's Dead Teacup

By Jackson Kuhl - April 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Did war planners misjudge the value of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities, a resource that in future tourism dollars (or dinars) was imaginably worth an oil well in itself? Probably. Yet soldiers may have arrived too late in any event. At Thursday's UNESCO meeting to discuss the situation, McGuire Gibson, professor at Chicago University's Oriental Institute, went on record theorizing the first wave of looting may have been inside work, perhaps by organized gangs. A story in the Telegraph already noted some museum vaults and safes were unlocked and opened rather than forced. CNN has reported that glass cutters were found amongst the wreckage, suggesting some looters were more discerning in their selection. Regime members may have been picking at the museum for years, much as 20th-Dynasty Egyptian priests methodically robbed the Valley of Kings to fund military campaigns.

Then came the mob, not always stealing - sometimes just smashing. Statues beheaded, pottery crushed, tablets broken. Accounts vary as to the involvement of U.S. troops. Some say they stood by impassively; others that they stayed to police the museum only to have looting begin again once they left. A guard at the museum numbered the crowd in the thousands, and even if that number is high, he also said many of them were armed with AK-47s. He pleaded with them to stop and received a snoot full of gun muzzle for his trouble. Archaeology magazine posts that supposedly items are already for sale in Tehran and - where else? - Paris. According to the DoJ, FBI agents are on their way to Iraq to investigate.

Most bizarre, however, has been Neil MacGregor's call to "kill the market in looted antiquities with an international declaration along the lines of that by the Allied Powers in the Second World War about works of art sold in Nazi-occupied Europe." MacGregor is the director of the British Museum, which probably houses the largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside of Iraq. He's also the same guy who back in February told the world that no way, no how, would the museum relinquish the Parthenon friezes known as the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Ever. Lord Elgin carted off the friezes to England while Greece was under Ottoman rule. Greece has been asking for their return ever since they won independence in 1830.

This follows on the heels of another statement, the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, issued in December by the directors of 19 museums worldwide, including the Met, the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Getty, the Louvre, the Prado, and the British Museum. The declaration stated that museum collections have become part of the patrimony of each museum's nation, regardless of their land of origin, and signaled any repatriation will be on a "case-by-case" basis (read: difficult, arbitrary, and long). The value of these collections lies in their presence outside the culture of their genesis, thereby exposing a greater audience to it. Modern mores of how they were acquired - through colonialism, spoils of war, smuggling - do not apply. Yet the declaration also condemns modern looting. One would think that with language like, "The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged," at least one of the 19 directors would blush at the contradiction.

All ten of the American signatories to the declaration are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors. In 1998 the AAMD issued a report on "the unlawful confiscation of art that constituted one of the many horrors of the Holocaust," and established a series of guidelines for returning art to their proper owners or heirs. Detail was paid to researching the provenance - that is, the paper trail of ownership - of works in member collections which were "created before 1946, transferred after 1932 and before 1946, and which were or could have been in continental Europe during that period." Priority is to be given to European paintings and Judaica. If a particular work is discovered to be looted, then the AAMD guidelines insist full disclosure be made public and legitimate claims to the work be reviewed and resolved "in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner."

Through the concourse of these statements, the museums are saying that looting is bad if it happened last week but good if it happened two-hundred years ago - and especially good if the results wound up in our collections. There is a point to be made in disseminating objects across the planet's museums, one illustrated by the Baghdad carnage. The directors are right in that the worth and utility of some pieces is precisely in the fact they are outside their homeland. My own love of Egyptology gestated not in Egypt but inside the British Museum. But the British Museum and the rest would come off a lot less imperialistic if to maintain that virtue they were willing to buy, rent, or swap with nations of origin (though I imagine MacGregor would drop dead of an aneurysm at the thought of sending a portrait of Henry VIII or a dismantled Christopher Wren building to Nigeria in return for a few Benin Bronzes). In many cases looted artifacts and monumental art originate in countries that all too badly need the revenue such objects can generate through tourism.

Meanwhile MacGregor has suggested the British Museum may loan some of their Mesopotamian pieces to the new Iraq to help re-establish their collection. So the only way Greece may ever get the Elgin Marbles back is if the Greek people take to the streets and set fire to their own museums.

The mob ransack of the National Museum (and, for that matter, of the National Library and other repositories throughout Iraq) is a f*ck-up in an otherwise smoothly executed war, a loss to archaeology, cultural consciousness, and most of all in tourism opportunities from foreign travelers. But nothing is forever. The media lather over it is reminiscent to that in March 2001 when the Taliban went culture wilding across Afghanistan, destroying among other things the 3rd- and 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas. The Western press was full of hand wringing and condemnations - even though the bulk of the destruction was to Greek and Islamic antiquities (the Taliban were Wahhabi purists, remember), a fact that received little mention.

Mostly silent, of course, were Buddhists themselves. One of the foundations of Buddhism is the impermanence of things. Tibetan monks will spend weeks carefully creating a sand mandala only to dump it into a lake upon completion. The Bamiyan Buddhas were a modern retelling of the Zen koan wherein a student accidentally breaks his master's favorite antique teacup. When his master appears, the student asks him why people have to die. The elder replies that all things must die; everything only has so long to live. The student shows him the broken pieces and says, it was time for your teacup to die.

Jackson Kuhl writes about archeology, travel, and culture.

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