The Iraq Museum in Baghdad

Reopening of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad
Scientific coordination:
Antonio Invernizzi (fino al 2008), Carlo Lippolis
Outfitting project:
Roberto Parapetti, Gianluca Capri
Work execution and logistics:
Ala’ Ahmed Passim al-Anbaki

One of the projects carried out by the Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l'Asia in years 2000-2013 was the restoration of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. As the most important artefacts of Mesopotamian culture found so far are preserved for the most part in the Iraq Museum, not only in the exhibition halls but especially in its immense storerooms, which contain an enormous number of artefacts of great historical significance, it is easy to understand the cultural importance of the work.

The project also included the restoration of seriously damaged pieces, which was conducted by Italian restorers, some of them belonging to the Central Restoration Institute and to the Archeological Local Authorities of Piedmont.

The project was prepared jointly with Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (Research, Innovation and Organization Area), and 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 Museum

The Iraq Museum was built by Faisal I in 1923, shortly after the monarchy was established in Iraq (1921) after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that followed World War I. The museum’s actual promoter was British scholar Gertrude Bell, technical adviser to the British protectorate, who was a personal friend of the king. In 1927 the museum had its first stable premises in Baghdad, where its 19th century collections were preserved. Archaeological research in Mesopotamia increased at that time, also favoured by the possibility of portioning out “duplicate or analogous” material found in the new excavations, as allowed by the law on antiquities of 1924, which remained in effect until 1967 (inalienability, however, was established by law in 1974).

Thus, a true archaeological boom that lasted until the end of the 1930s took place. British, American, German and French institutions began new excavations (Nineveh, Ur, Tell Ubaid, Kish, Jemdet Nasr, Khorsabad, Tepe Gawra, Nuzi, Uruk, Tello, Seleucia, Ctesiphon) that laid the groundwork for gaining knowledge on the Mesopotamian civilization, and made it possible to enlarge the collections of western museums. Italy, with a very brief Florentine mission, was present in Kakzu. As a result, the Iraq Museum also benefited, so much that in 1932 it was decided to enlarge it and the construction of its new (current) premises, designed by German architect Werner March, began in 1940. In the meantime, in 1937 the Museum of Arab Antiquities, which was absorbed by the new museum that finally opened in 1966, was established in a historical building of Baghdad. World War II did not disrupt the activities on the ground, thanks to the first Iraqi excavations (‘Aqar Quf, Eridu), followed in the post-war period by the new excavations in Nippur, Nimrud and Uruk; a series of conservative excavations for the creation of water basins were also inaugurated in Tharthar, Demberke-Khan and Dokan.

The 1960s also saw missions from Russia, Japan and Turin take part in the excavations in Mesopotamia. From the 1970s, fourteen new provincial museums with educational functions and representing the entire panorama of Mesopotamian civilization were established, and new international conservative excavations for the creation of more dams (Hamrin, Haditha, Eski Mosul) were also inaugurated.

The reconstruction of the Museum’s restoration laboratories

As a response to the most urgent requests made by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage after the war in March 2003, the works in the Iraq Museum started with the reconstruction of the restoration laboratories, looted and irreparably damaged in April 2003, which were reorganized in a different wing of the Museum. The new laboratories, completely furnished and equipped with equipment and basic materials sent from Italy, were inaugurated in March 2004, and training courses for 14 new Iraqi restorers begun. The project was implemented jointly with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, acting through its Central Restoration Institute. Under the supervision of Italian experts, who worked from April to June 2004, the objects most subject to decay were recovered from the various deposits of the Iraq Museum.

Upon indication of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq and with the cooperation of the 14 Iraqi restoration trainees, materials chosen on the basis of their specific didactic significance and of the seriousness of their state of conservation were treated. Restoration was therefore performed on a group of limestone and alabaster statues from Hatra. A specific treatment concerned some of the orthostats of the so-called Assyrian room, through the inspection and partial reconstruction of the old integrations with appropriate materials. The activities that concerned the stone artefacts culminated in the restoration of the head from Warka and with the cleaning and assembly, taking care not to damage the historically documented plaster relief integrations, of the numerous fragments of the Warka vase, which had been looted and subsequently returned. Unfortunately, the reconstruction of the valuable document could not be completed. Recovery works continued with the recomposition of the fragments of one of the terracotta lions from Tell Harmal. Several ivory artefacts from Nimrud, found in a store room that had been flooded several times, were also treated. Some of these items were cleaned and disinfested.

In addition to the restoration of heavily damaged artefacts, the treatments also enabled the trainees to learn the main restoration techniques and the use of the most recent conservation materials.

Restoration training in Amman (Jordan)

Due to the precarious security conditions in Iraq, restoration training courses were subsequently moved to Amman, at the local Department of Antiquities (Dec. 2004 – Feb. 2005). Availing themselves of the opportunity of working on archaeological materials originating from illegal excavations in Iraq, the 14 Iraqi trainees, in addition to continuing their theoretical training, had the chance to continue their actual restoration training. On this occasion it was also possible to catalogue these objects through the creation of another database (B.R.I.L.A. Jordan). The filed archaeological artefacts were published in the book An endangered cultural heritage: Iraqi antiquities recovered in Jordan (Monografie di Mesopotamia, VII, ed. by R. Menegazzi).

The purpose of the courses, which were held at the local Restoration Centre, was that of teaching the basic notions of archaeological restoration, both theoretical (technology and restoration of pottery, glass, metal, ivory) and practical (pottery, stone). The course was completed by lessons on the history of restoration and on Mesopotamian art history and archaeology from prehistoric times to the Ottoman period. Thirteen experts from Italy and one from Jordan trained 14 Iraqis; the course was also followed by six Jordanians who attended as auditors. Thanks to additional funding provided by UNESCO, it was possible to integrate the activities in Jordan with a specific course on the emergency conservation (first-aid conservation) of objects in their journey from the excavation to the laboratory.

The Jordanian authorities in charge, and specifically Dr. Fawaz Khraisheh, General Director of the Department of Antiquities gave this project all of their moral and logistical support.

The reopening of the Iraq Museum

The project of reopening a part of the Iraq Museum galleries, where unmovable objects are still exhibited, has been envisaged, with the favour of the museum authorities and the support of the Italian government, since autumn 2003. The work for the new Assyrian and Islamic galleries – planned by arch. Roberto Parapetti for the Centro Scavi of Torino and entrusted to a local contractor (Consultant Engineering of Baghdad) – started in spring 2006. After long logistic interruption for security reasons, it was completed in November 2008.

In the Assyrian gallery, where samples of monumental sculpture from Khorsabad and Nimrud are exhibited, a new lighting system and a new architectural contextualization were installed. In the Islamic gallery new partition walls were planned to better organize the chronology and the geography of the architectural pieces exhibited. Samples of the statuary form Hatra and educational aids for the explanation of the entire archaeological panorama of Mesopotamian Iraq will be exhibited in the museum’s main courtyard.

The project received financial support from the 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.

A new project, started in 2012, foresaw the outfitting of the so-called Middle Assyrian Gallery, where the main finds from Nimrud – together with other Assyrian objects dating from the half of the 2nd millennium and the 1st millennium BC. The works were planned by arch. Gianluca Capri and entrusted to the company Consultant Engineering, owned by eng. Ala‘ Anbaki. The windows of the hall were framed by opaque glasses, and a new contextualization of the objects was given, thanks to adequate cases and exhibition setting. The most delicate action was the movement and the new setting of the two human-headed bulls from Nimrud, weighing more than 5 tons each, that were previously on display in another aisle of the Museum. The educational tools include an illuminated timeline and many explanatory panels, both in Arabic and in English, on the site of Nimrud. A corner of the gallery has been 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. The Italian Embassy in Baghdad and the Italian Institute for the Conservation and Restoration (ISCR) greatly contributed to the success of the project. Now we can proudly say that the new outfitting of almost all the ground floor of the Iraq Museum was realized thanks to the Italian contribution.

In March 2015 the Museum has officially re-opened, giving to schools and private visitors the chance to admire the priceless artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia.

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