Exhibitions Museums Iraq

Baghdad beckons Zaha Hadid?

Ministry and Iraqi-born architect tight-lipped about billion-dollar plan to build new national museum

Assyrian murals and other national treasures could be on the move

The Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Liwa Sumaism, has said that his government plans to build a new museum in west Baghdad that will house objects currently in the collection of the Iraq National Museum. The Iraqi government has reportedly invited the Iraqi-born, British architect Zaha Hadid to submit designs for the project; a spokeswoman for Hadid says that she is “unable to confirm or comment” on the project.

According to the newspaper Azzaman, the museum will be on the site of the former Muthanna military airport, an area of around 500,000 sq. m. “The country’s outstanding relics will all be moved to the new museum with the old one [the Iraq National Museum] turned into a site for research and study of antiquities,” reports Azzaman.

The tourism minister said that a budget had not yet been fixed, but a spokesman at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London told the UK publication Museums Journal that $1bn has been allocated to the development, which will also include shops, hotels and a library.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Iraqi Embassy in London, declined to reveal more details, leaving international specialists largely in the dark. Clemens Reichel, an associate curator (Ancient Near East) at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, says: “To the best of my knowledge this is a plan, but no details have been finalised so far.”

McGuire Gibson, the professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, says he is aware of the initiative. “The location is north of, and not far from, the present museum,” he says.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the British Museum in London says that the construction of a new museum in Basra, southern Iraq, is underway and is expected to open in late 2014. The British Museum is working with the Iraqi government on the project, which was first announced in 2008. Set beside an artificial lake and overlooking the Shatt al-Arab waterway, it lies in a secure area 2km south of the city centre. The Lakeside Palace would provide considerable space for antiquities, some of which may come from Baghdad’s national museum.

The Iraq National Museum, Baghdad, has been open since February for VIP tours and school groups, according to its website. The beleaguered museum had been closed since the US-led invasion in 2003. Looting during the conflict provoked an international outcry.

“The number of looted collection items has been a matter of debate but museum staff think about 15,000 items, including 5,000 valuable cylinder seals were stolen,” says its website. Officials declined to say when it would reopen to the public. To date, no proper audit of the museum’s collection has been completed.

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