Source: The Globe & Mail (Canada) (www.theglobeandmail.com), by Elena Becatoros
ATHENS — Baghdad's National Museum, a treasure trove of artifacts from the stone age and Babylon to the Assyrians and Islamic art, will not reopen when renovation of two of its galleries is completed in a few months, an official said.
The museum, which is struggling to rebuild its collection after it was looted in April, 2003, in the U.S.-led invasion, is still in a terrible state, said Bahaa Mayah, adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
“We are not planning to open,” Mayah said Tuesday at an international conference in Athens on returning cultural objects to their countries of origin.
The museum lacks a security system, a reliable supply of electricity or a fire system, he said.
“It's very ... painful to see inside the museum,” he said. “We lack everything. Just there is a building. But the building is not equipped, it's not ready.”
The museum's roughly 200,000 items were being kept “in an unsuitable environment,” he said. “Something must be done.”
Although there are no fears of renewed looting, the building could become a target for bombers, said Maysoon al-Bayati, a media official at the museum.
“We are afraid of bombings,” al-Bayati said in Baghdad. “We are afraid if we open the museum, bombers with explosive belts would come and damage the museum.”
The museum has been closed to the public since the eve of the 2003 war. At the time, some of the most important exhibits were removed from public display cases and stored in vaults to protect against bomb damage.
As a result, there was a strong suspicion that some of the most sophisticated looting was by museum employees who knew where the most priceless items were hidden.
“It is well known, well shown, well documented, well proven that much of the thefts of the museum were from museum insiders and senior government officials,” U.S. Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the investigator who led the probe into the looting, told The Associated Press. “That's clear. Not all of it by any means, but much of it.”
Since then, curators have been trying to recover some of the 15,000 artifacts that were stolen.
The renovation of two of its galleries should be finished by May or June, Louis Godart, adviser on culture to the Italian president, said at the conference. Italy has been involved in the repairs.
One option being considered was to open the museum selectively for prearranged visits by dignitaries, Mayah said.
However, Bogdanos said the museum should open to the public.
“I would open the museum tomorrow,” he said. “If you close the museum, the bad guys win. This is the point. This is what the bad guys want. They're winning. So open the museum.”
Bogdanos said he recognizes that security in Baghdad remains precarious. But with a wall around the compound and the galleries far from the street, it would be relatively protected from attack.
Opening it, even if it's not entirely ready and only a few galleries were available to the public, would be a first step, he said.
“It also promotes pride; pride in the people who are visiting, pride in the neighbourhood that it's situated in and pride in the employees to work a little harder,” Bogdanos said.