International outrage as Iraq's National Museum is sacked by civilians

American army says it was aware of the risks, but did not protect the building as Iraqi nationals overwhelmed staff who attempted to defend the collection


Iraq’s National Museum survived the US bombardment, only to be looted by a few hundred people, who ransacked it in two days. What had probably been the greatest collection in the Middle East was discarded as rubble on the floor.

As we went to press, on 16 April, the full extent of the destruction remained unclear, and it is likely to be months before a proper assessment can be made. Initial reports suggest that the museum, in central Baghdad’s Karkh district, was first raided by a dozen looters in the morning of Thursday, 10 April, the day after US troops began to take control of central Baghdad.

Museum guard, Abdulk Rahman, tried to stop the first pillagers breaking through security gates at the rear of the compound, but he was forced to give up. Once inside, guards and curators were powerless to resist.

A few hours later, US troops answered a desperate call from a curator, Raid Abdul Ridha Mohammed. Tanks were brought to the entrance, which dispersed the looters, but the Americans stayed for only half an hour. Immediately after their departure, the looters returned.

The main ransacking seems to have occurred the next day, when hundreds of looters quickly gained access to the 28 public galleries. Most of the portable items had been removed from the displays to the basement last year, so the most important remaining objects were large stone items, such as statues and reliefs, and these were partly protected by sandbags.

Looters smashed glass display cabinets to grab what remained and began hitting the heavy items with iron bars, knocking heads off stone sculptures. Many seemed more intent on vandalism than looting.

Then the mob gained access to the vaults. The basement is the main store for the reserve collection, which contains the vast bulk of the museum’s 170,000 inventoried objects, including portable items removed from the displays last year. The steel door to the vaults may have been opened by staff who were threatened at gunpoint. The looters finally left on Saturday, 12 April.

On Tuesday, 15 April, UK Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell admitted to The Art Newspaper that “as of now, I do not know exactly what measures the American troops are taking to protect the museum.”

Iraq’s second largest archaeological collection, the Mosul Museum, was also looted. It is feared that all important items from its collection, including objects from Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra, were taken away. Had it not been for the looting of the National Museum, the loss of the Mosul collection would have received international attention, but as it was it became a mere footnote to the Baghdad story.

Mosul’s university library with its ancient Islamic manuscripts was looted the same day.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, looters attacked the National Library and Archives on 13 April, setting off a fire which burned for two days. This happened after the plunder of the National Museum. It seems that most of its collection was destroyed, including ancient manuscripts, antiquarian books and a unique holding of Iraqi newspapers. Baghdad’s Koranic Library also appears to have been destroyed by fire.

There is only one cause for optimism on the heritage front. Initial reports suggest that the greatest ancient cities—Assur, Babylon, Nineveh, Nimrud and Ur—seem to have to have suffered minimal damage from coalition bombs and tanks, although a final assessment will have to await a detailed examination by archaeologists.

The fear is that there may be looting of archaeological remains. Only the most important sites are fenced off and in the anarchic situation many of these will be unguarded.

In the present crisis, the international community is rallying around. Unesco called a meeting in Paris for 17 April with 20 top international specialists on Mesopotamia, which, it was hoped, would lead to a mission to Baghdad at the earliest possible date. The British Museum is also holding a meeting of experts on Iraq for 29 April, to which it hopes the Iraqis will be able to come.

Speaking at the British Museum on 15 April, UK Culture Secretary Ms Jowell announced the formation of a “culture coalition”, which will include specialists from the British Museum, three museums with very large Iraqi holdings (the Louvre, the Berlin Museum and New York’s Metropolitan), and others.

Ms Jowell also committed the UK government to taking a tough stand against the import of looted Iraqi antiquities. “I want to make it quite clear that no antiquities which belong to Iraq will be legally imported in the UK.”

She cited the UK’s signature of the 1970 Unesco Convention on Cultural Property as well as sanctions legislation on Iraq. Ms Jowell also indicated the government’s support for an existing Private Member’s Bill on trade in illicit antiquities.

The Antiquities Dealers Association of the United Kingdom and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art both pledged that they will “under no circumstances acquire antiquities stolen from Iraq and will make every effort to ensure such works of art are eventually returned to their proper home.”

Unesco has briefed Interpol, the International Association of Customs, the International Confederation of Art Dealers, as well as the International Council of Museums and the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised that the US “will be working with a number of individuals and organisations not only to secure the National Museum, but to recover that which has been taken, and also to participate in restoring that which has been broken. The US understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general, but this museum in particular.” Donald Rumsfeld said that rewards should be offered for turning in looted antiquities.

The sack of the Iraq Museum

How much has been lost?

The National Museum’s inventory numbered 170,000 items. Virtually all the portable objects on display and many in the vaults were looted, but a much larger number of items from the collection were vandalised. Other objects were simply knocked off storage shelves, breaking and damaging them. A small, but highly valuable collection of Nimrud gold treasures, possibly including other precious portable items, had earlier been removed for safety to a bank vault. There is no news yet on whether these pieces are safe.

Did the Americans know that the museum might be looted?

Yes. On 5 April, US Major Christopher Varhola gave a formal press briefing in Kuwait. He said: “Another concern is the looting, especially in the absence of law of and order and the economic uncertainty that is inherent to any military operation of this magnitude. All around Iraq there are a number of museums, in particular the National Museum of Baghdad, that hold priceless material. The US military is eager to coordinate with any organisation dedicated to the task of preservation, which transcends military and operational necessity.”

Why was the museum not protected?

Both inside and outside Iraq, before the war began there was much more concern about American bombing, than possible looters. The American Association for Research in Baghdad, the Archaeological Institute of America and the World Monuments Fund all warned the State Department of the risks to archaeological sites, but no one seems to have foreseen the risk of urban rioting and looting. The National Museum had been closed for nearly a decade after the Gulf War, only reopening in May 2000, when 10,000 objects went on display. Last year most of the museum was closed again, leaving only three of the 28 galleries open, and these were later shut because of rising international tension.

Why did Iraqis wreck their own culture?

After more than two decades of dictatorship, a minority reacted in a frenzy of uncontrolled destruction. The museum was regarded by some as simply another government building, and Saddam Hussein had also used Iraq’s glorious past to help bolster his regime.

How could America ignore the ransacking?

The National Museum was by far the most important cultural site in the entire country. It is therefore inexplicable that the American forces did not regard its protection as a major priority when occupying Baghdad. On the day after the looting at the museum had ended, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented: “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things.”

UK Culture Secretary Ms Jowell made some guarded criticisms of the US: “Coalition forces have many tasks to perform, but the British forces in Basra have been able to protect the museum there from further damage. All forces should see the protection of heritage not as an optional extra, but as a duty they owe to the Iraqi people.”

What should happen now at the museum?

Advice from specialists is to treat the museum’s floors like an archaeological dig or a crime site, both forensically and legally. As Dr Eleanor Robson, an Oxford-based council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, explained: “Every reporter, photographer and sightseer risks disturbing the destruction stratum, which must remain intact if anything is to be pieced together again. If the debris is swept up into bin bags it will be impossible to reconstruct.” The rubble in each room first needs to be properly photographed. Careful and considered planning will then be necessary before curators and conservators go through each room, one by one. The 170,000 registered objects were mainly recorded on cards, many of which were scattered by the mob. Many can, perhaps, be recovered. Early this year, an agreement had been signed between Iraq and Italy to catalogue and computerise the collections, including all the material in store. This project was to be conducted by the Centre for Archaeological Research and Excavations in Turin which has been working in Iraq under Giorgio Gullini since 1964. Under the aegis of the Italian ministry of culture, there was a plan to expand the museum and create an advanced conservation centre.

The British Museum now has the world’s largest collection of Iraqi antiquities, following the plunder of the greatest collection. Within hours of news reaching London, an anonymous private donor offered funds for a team of six conservators and three curators to go out to Baghdad. This is the first step in what is likely to become a long-term project. Director Neil MacGregor has indicated that the British Museum might eventually consider lending objects for display in Baghdad, once the situation is normalised. Italy has been the first country to pledge assistance to Unesco, with an initial e400,000.

How can the loot be tracked down?

Professor McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago estimates that there are 200-300 people involved in the illicit archeological trade in Iraq.

It also seems likely that some of the looters knew what they were doing; a curator from Baghdad interviewed by British Channel 4 News said that there were copies of some of the objects in the galleries, but that these were not taken. It is therefore likely that works will be filtering onto the market very soon.

The art trade worldwide should impose a voluntary moratorium on handling all Iraqi antiquities, and collectors should refuse to buy them. With a dwindling market and low prices, looters will find it more difficult to sell their booty. The Iraqi authorities should consider a short-term amnesty for the return of museum objects.

Although both Donald Rumsfeld and Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello have suggested rewards for returning looted pieces (see left), this might encourage further plunder.

Measures must be taken to prevent US and UK soldiers from returning home with antiquities.

Wherever possible, dealers and collectors should photograph and record Iraqi antiquities which are offered to them for sale.

A database of the most important items lost from the museum must be compiled as an urgent priority—and widely disseminated. In the meantime, The Art Newspaper is posting details of more than 300 of the most prominent objects from the collection on its website (

Is the US planning to change Iraqi law?

The rumour that the US is planning to “liberalise” Iraq’s tough laws on the export of antiquities, widely reported in the international press, derived from a meeting in Washington on 24 January between the American Council for Cultural Policy (a privately funded association of collectors and lawyers) and Pentagon and State Department officials.

The council’s treasurer, William Pearlstein, was later quoted in the US magazine Science as describing Iraq’s laws as “retentionist”, and he wanted to see “some objects certified for export.”

American Council for Cultural Policy president Ashton Hawkins told The Art Newspaper that what Mr Pearlstein had done was to voice his personal opinion after the meeting, and that this, did not represent council policy. He insisted that “there had been no discussion of Iraqi law” at the Washington meeting.

Changes to the present law of 1936 (amended in 1974-75) would in any case be impossible before the establishment of a new democratically elected government.

Under international law, an occupying power can only alter laws on humanitarian or public order grounds. Nevertheless, the fact that Metropolitan Museum director Mr de Montebello is now suggesting that international museums should participate in new archaeological excavations and receive export licences suggest that Mr Pearlstein’s views would enjoy some support.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'International outrage as great museum is sacked'