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Disasters & destruction

Philippe de Montebello on the sack of the Iraq Museum: “Is it sensible for all the eggs to be in one basket?”

The Art Newspaper speaks to the director of the Metropolitan about the historical significance of the Iraq Museum's plunder and how disasters of its kind can be dealt with

The Art Newspaper: How would you characterise what has happened to the National Archaeological Museum in Baghdad?

Philippe de Montebello: It’s already been compared to the burning of the library in Alexandria. We’re talking about history going back eight millennia to the invention of writing—so many cuneiform tablets, the first examples of writing, would appear to have perished—as well as great works of art from the Sumerian civilisation, from Ur, from Uruk, from so many other sites.

The tragedy was that the Iraq Museum was also the holding place for thousands upon thousands of artefacts that had been excavated over the last decades—most of these unpublished, most of these probably not even photographed. So it’s a total loss.

TAN: Could this have been avoided?

PdM: I’m not going to answer that question from my vantage point, but I am going to say that we are prepared to offer technical help, exchanges, conservation materials, whatever it takes. One of the great concerns also is that a lot of the gold objects may well be melted down, and somewhere rewards have to be offered. Those who hold these gold objects must be made to realise that there’s going to be no market giving the object a higher value as an antiquity than as gold. Then a mechanism has to be found so that these people don’t melt it down, so they can exchange it for money and it can be returned to the museum.

TAN: Can you think of museums that might seek to own some of these objects?

PdM: Of course not. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) strongly advocates that any object that they suspect comes from the Iraq Museum should be reported. We’re opening an AAMD website so anybody can post missing objects.

But after Kabul and now Baghdad, you have to reconsider whether having all of your eggs in one basket is the best thing. If you’re able to study and still see great material from Iraq in the British Museum, in Berlin, in the University of Pennsylvania, in the Met and in the Louvre, it’s the result of joint excavations. I think that Iraq should be open once again to joint archaeological excavations. This extreme position that everything should be kept in the place of origin has been shown to be a very perilous one. The archaeological community is going to have to sit down with the museum community and work out intelligent and reasonable proposals that do not have ideology at stake but the value of knowledge and the preservation of these great antiquities.

You can see great Nimrud ivories because we participated in the excavation of Nimrud and there was partage; a number of them are here and a number at the British Museum, and a number of them at the Iraq Museum. Probably the last have now been destroyed.

TAN: After Desert Storm in 1991, reliefs were hacked out of sites like Nimrud by looters. Pieces were found in Amman, and some of those were returned. Those sites risk being looted today. Do you have any suggestions about how those sites might avoid falling victim to the same fate that’s hit Baghdad?

PdM: I don’t have any battalions to send. I’m sitting here in New York at 82nd and Fifth. All I can do is raise my voice and implore international organisations and the US and British government to think of the heritage of mankind.

The sack of Baghdad turns our forthcoming exhibition, “Art of the first cities”, about the third millennium BC in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, into a Noah’s Ark kind of show, sadly, I wish it didn’t.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"Is it sensible for all the eggs to be in one basket?"'