Well over half the exhibition halls in Iraq’s National Museum are closed, darkened and in disrepair. And yet, the museum whose looting in 2003 became a symbol of the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion officially reopened on Monday.
Thousands of works from its collection of antiquities and art — some of civilization’s earliest objects — remain lost.
The smell of fresh paint infuses the Room of Treasures, which even now is deemed safe enough for only photographs of the intricate gold and gem-studded jewelry made in Nimrud nearly 3,000 years ago, not the real thing.
Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki pushed to reopen the museum, against the advice of his own Culture Ministry, as a sign of Iraqi progress. Symbol it was, and symbol it remains — not only of how much Iraq has improved, but of how far it has to go.
“It was a rugged wave and strong black wind that passed over Iraq, and one of the results was the destruction that hit this cultural icon,” al-Maliki declared in a dedication ceremony that was shrouded in dispute and secrecy until the last minute. “We have stopped this black wind, and we have resumed the process of reconstruction.”
Yet the museum is only one institution in a place where little functions as it should — not electricity or even sewerage — nearly six years after the beginning of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein. The museum, like life here, may be more secure than at any other time since then, but it is not normal.
Armed soldiers patrolled the museum’s roof and watched from sandbagged redoubts as al-Maliki, other senior officials and foreign diplomats arrived. Helicopters thudded in the sky, and the police blocked streets for miles around.
Inside, in stark contrast, visitors filled eight of the museum’s 26 galleries, engaged in hushed conversations before glass cases displaying ancient pottery and sculptures, cuneiform tablets from Sumerian and Babylonian times, and the stunning 2,700-year-old stone reliefs from the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad. (In size and shape, the stonework eerily recalls the blast walls that protect buildings and divide streets in today’s Baghdad.)
When Iraqis may actually see for themselves a collection of relics and art that spans millenniums was a question even the museum’s deputy director, Muhsin Hassan Ali, dared not answer, even when pressed.
The museum’s directors have twice before ostentatiously opened the doors. In July 2003, the American civilian administrator in Iraq at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, toured some displays a few months after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed the looting by saying, “Stuff happens.” In December 2007, the museum’s director allowed a group of journalists and politicians inside for a few hours.
The museum remained shuttered, though, battened down against the violence swirling outside. Not until now has Iraq’s government officially declared it a working institution again.