The Iraq Museum in Baghdad

Project: Reopening of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad

Scientific direction: Antonio Invernizzi (until 2008), Carlo Lippolis

Design and planning: Roberto Parapetti, Gianluca Capri

Execution and logistics: Ala’ Ahmed Passim al-Anbaki

The project

One of the projects developed by the Centro Scavi Torino since 2003 was the refurbishment of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The cultural impact of such an endeavour is evident when considering that the museum hosts the largest Mesopotamian collection in the country, including unique objects of extraordinary historical and artistic significance, preserved both in the exhibition halls and in the vast storerooms.

The project also involved the restoration of the artefacts that had been severely damaged in the looting during the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, which was conducted by Italian restorers, mainly from the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR) and the Soprintendenza Archeologica del Piemonte.

The project was prepared in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (Research, Innovation and Organization Area) and it was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Direction General for the Mediterranean and Middle East), by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (Research, Innovation and Organization Area), and by the Fondazione Banca Nazionale delle Comunicazioni.

The history of the Iraq Museum

The Iraq Museum was built by King Faisal I in 1923, shortly after the monarchy was established in Iraq (1921) in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire that followed World War I. The driving force behind the creation of the museum was the British scholar Gertrude Bell, technical advisor to the British protectorate and personal friend of the king. In 1927, the museum had its first premises in Baghdad, where the collections from the 19th century excavations were kept. Archaeological research in Mesopotamia was steadily increasing at the time, encouraged by a favourable antiquities law (the so-called ‘Partition’, 1924) that, while limiting the removal of unique objects from the country, allowed a fair division of the findings among foreign expeditions and Iraqi authorities. The law was in effect until 1967, although inalienability was set forth by law only later in 1974.

Thus, a true ‘archaeological boom’ took place, lasting until the end of the 1930s. British, American, German, and French institutions began new excavations (Nineveh, Ur, Tell Ubaid, Kish, Jemdet Nasr, Khorsabad, Tepe Gawra, Nuzi, Uruk, Tello, Seleucia on the Tigris, Ctesiphon) that laid the foundations of our knowledge on millennia of Mesopotamian history, and enriched the collections of western museums significantly. Italy too took part in the archaeological investigations of this period, with a brief expedition from Florence working at Kakzu. As a result, the Iraq Museum was also enriched with numerous new findings, so much so that the plans for its enlargement started already in 1932. The construction of its new (and current) premises, designed by the German architect Werner March, began in 1940. In the meantime, the Museum of Arab Antiquities, which will be absorbed into the Iraq Museum by the time of its opening in 1966, was established in a historical building of Baghdad in 1937. World War II did not interrupt the fieldwork, as testified by the first Iraqi expeditions (‘Aqar Quf, Eridu). These were followed in the post-war period by new excavations in Nippur, Nimrud, and Uruk and by a series of emergency excavations due to the creation of water basins in the north of the country (Tharthar, Demberke-Khan, Dokan).

The 1960s saw the participation of teams from Russia, Japan, and Italy (Turin) to the research in Mesopotamia. From the 1970s, fourteen new provincial museums with educational purposes were established, which were designed to present to the public the different phases of Iraq’s history, from Prehistory to the Ottoman period. In addition to these projects, new emergency excavations took place, led by international expeditions to salvage archaeological sites threatened by the creation of more water dams in the north (Hamrin, Haditha, Eski Mosul).

The reconstruction of the Iraq Museum’s restoration laboratories

In response to the urgent requests of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) after the start of the war in March 2003, the works in the Iraq Museum initially focused on the reconstruction of the restoration laboratories, looted and irreparably damaged in April 2003. The new laboratories, inaugurated in 2004 in a different wing of the museum, were completely refurbished and provided with equipment and restoration products from Italy. With their reopening also began the training of 14 Iraqi restorers as part of a joint project with the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, through the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR). Under the supervision of the Italian experts, who worked at the museum from April to June 2004, a selection of the objects that were most damaged or presented severe conservation issues were recovered and restored.

Upon indication of the SBAH and with the cooperation of the 14 Iraqi trainees, artefacts were chosen on the basis of their relevance in the training activities and especially of their state of preservation. Restoration was therefore performed on a group of limestone and alabaster sculptures from Hatra. Special attention was paid to the treatment of some of the orthostats of the so-called Assyrian section of the museum, through the inspection and partial substitution of the old integrations with appropriate materials. The activities on stone artefacts culminated in the restoration of the head from Warka and the famous vase from the same site, which required particular care in the cleaning and assemblage of the numerous fragments that had been looted and subsequently returned to the museum. Unfortunately, the reconstruction of this invaluable object could not be completed. The operations continued with the recomposition of the fragments of one of the terracotta lions from Tell Harmal. Moreover, several ivory artefacts from Nimrud, found in a storeroom that had been flooded several times, were treated and underwent cleaning and disinfestation.

In addition to the salvage of heavily damaged artefacts, these activities proved to be extremely useful for the trainees to learn the application of up-to-date restoration techniques and products.

The restoration training in Amman (Jordan)

Due to the precarious security conditions in Iraq, the second phase of the training was moved to Amman, where the courses were held at the local Department of Antiquities (December 2004 – February 2005). Taking advantage of the opportunity to work on archaeological artefacts coming from illegal excavations in Iraq confiscated by Jordanian authorities, the trainees had the chance not only to expand their theoretical knowledge but also to further their practical training. This endeavour made it possible to prepare a catalogue of the archaeological objects recovered through the creation of the B.R.I.L.A. Jordan database. The objects were later published in the book An endangered cultural heritage: Iraqi antiquities recovered in Jordan (Monografie di Mesopotamia VII, edited by R. Menegazzi).

The main goal of the courses, held at the local Restoration Centre, was to teach the basic notions of archaeological restoration, both theoretical (technology and restoration of pottery, glass, metal, ivory) and practical (pottery, stone). The training was completed by lectures on the history of restoration and on Mesopotamian art and archaeology from Prehistory to the Ottoman period. Thirteen experts from Italy and one from Jordan acted as trainers. The courses saw the participation of 14 Iraqi trainees and of 6 more Jordanian professionals attending as auditors. Thanks to additional funding provided by UNESCO, it was possible to integrate the activities in Jordan with a tailored module on the emergency conservation (first-aid conservation) of objects in the field and during their journey to the laboratory.

The Jordanian authorities in charge, especially Dr Fawaz Khraisheh (General Director of the Department of Antiquities), provided fundamental logistical and moral support to the project.

The renovation and reopening of the Iraq Museum

The renovation of the Iraq Museum – started in spring 2006 under the direction of architect Roberto Parapetti and carried out by the Consultant Engineering company in Baghdad – included the gallery with the Assyrian monumental sculptures, the gallery with the Islamic architectural decoration, and the large central courtyard. The two galleries were renewed with a different organisation of the space and the objects, and with a new lighting system. The central courtyard was equipped with a video surveillance system. The exhibition display was complemented by a series of panels illustrating the history of the Iraq Museum and of the archaeological research in the country, and the main stages of the historical and artistic development of Mesopotamian civilisations from Prehistory to the Ottoman period.

The project received financial support from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Direction General for the Mediterranean and Middle East), the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (Research, Innovation and Organization Area), and the Fondazione Banca Nazionale delle Comunicazioni.

Starting in 2012, a new programme saw the renovation of the so-called Middle Assyrian Gallery, where the main finds from Nimrud – together with other Assyrian objects dating from the mid-2nd millennium to the 1st millennium BCE – were exhibited. The work was planned by architect Gianluca Capri and entrusted to the company Consultant Engineering, owned by engineer Ala‘ al-Anbaki. The windows of the hall were equipped with opaque glass, and a new display of the objects was prepared to better contextualise them in their archaeological and historical context. Moving and relocating the two lamassu (human-headed winged bulls) from Nimrud, which weigh over 5 tons each and were previously exhibited in another hall of the Iraq Museum, proved to be the most difficult and delicate operation. Support and educational tools included an interactive timeline and many explanatory panels, both in Arabic and in English, on the site of Nimrud. A corner of the gallery was also equipped with a screen and a digital projector.

The works, which ended in November 2013, were entirely funded by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. The Italian Embassy in Baghdad and the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR) greatly contributed to the success of the project.

The Iraq Museum officially reopened in March 2015, providing schools and visitors with the opportunity to behold priceless artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. However, the work of the Centro Scavi Torino did not stop with the renovation of the three large galleries on the ground floor. Their focus on communication and the search for greater public engagement – which had already inspired the development of educational materials for the Middle Assyrian Gallery – led to the creation of learning tools (games, comic strips, historical maps) aimed at children and young visitors, and to the implementation of theoretical and practical training programmes for the museum staff. As a culmination of this work, within the framework of the EDUU project, the Centro Scavi Torino promoted the setup of the Iraq Museum’s educational room in a space on the first floor of the building, which was inaugurated in January 2020.

Today, the Centro Scavi Torino’s experts are collaborating to the renovation of the Sumerian Gallery, a project funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS-MAECI) and coordinated, in its scientific aspects of research and museology, by the University of Turin.