The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum


April 3, 2006

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Art | History


FOR the director of a shuttered museum in a country at war, the imaginary can be a welcome refuge. Condemned to contemplate his own and his country’s fate in great halls emptied of visitors, Donny George paces past showcases of ancient vessels and jars and clay tablets, and he dreams.

Max Becherer/Polaris, for The New York Times

In his mind’s eye, the museum director sees the grand opening: the courtyard filled with 1,000 guests, succulent lamb and sumptuous dates on tables beneath the palms, a Baghdad chamber quartet playing, the spirited talk of civilized people in the land where, several thousand years ago, the emergence of writing first permitted the considered transfer of ideas from one epoch to the next.

Mr. George smiles. It is a relief to dream when explosions greet the dawn. His genial brown eyes express both hope and the burden of living in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, he learned to live a double life: praising the dictator in public, worrying in private. He was a member of Mr. Hussein’s now-disbanded Baath Party. Not to be, he says, would have meant dismissal and the abandonment of archaeological excavations, his great love. Compromise is woven into the texture of his life.

Now, as the director general of Iraqi museums, his new title, he inhabits a labyrinth. The Interior Ministry has been urging him to reopen the National Museum, saying it will provide him with 1,000 guards if necessary. “But then it’s no longer a museum,” Mr. George said. “It’s a barracks.”

Three years have now passed since the chaos accompanying the arrival of American troops in Baghdad set off looting at the museum. Mr. George fled through the back door, he says, when Iraqi militias began firing rocket-propelled grenades into the grounds. The plundering prompted international outrage, finger-pointing and a frenzy of political spin.

Initial reports of 170,000 stolen artifacts were exaggerated, as were wild comparisons to the sack of Constantinople. But the real number, about 15,000, still amounted to a tremendous loss. Reversing the damage has been arduous.

Largely through American assistance, both public and private, the museum has been restored and modernized. Mr. George, an Iraqi Christian who speaks excellent English, has proved adept at garnering this aid, forging good relations with several American officials while nursing an undiminished anger at the way, in his view, the United States “dismantled the whole former system only to leave a void.”

Even with thousands of pieces still missing, the museum houses an extraordinary collection by any standard. What is lacking is the peace it needs to admit the public.

“When a museum is reopened, it means that peace has come,” Mr. George said. For now, it is a hollow place, devoid of life, empty of discourse. This echoing museum at the heart of Baghdad — that is to say, at the heart of the American project in Iraq — is an image of hope frustrated.

“Everyone, deep in himself, is grateful to the United States that they helped us get rid of this regime,” Mr. George said. “But the uncontrolled situation, that is another thing. Why was it not controlled?”

In Baghdad today, as the concrete blast walls multiply, control seems almost unimaginable. Since 2003, three museum employees — an archaeologist, an accountant and a driver — have been killed.

“It’s hard to know what you can do with security the way it is,” said John Russell, an expert in Iraqi archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art who spent several months in Baghdad coordinating cultural reconstruction for the State Department. “The museum will open some day, but for now it’s right to keep a low profile. Nobody wants to be responsible for a disaster.”

Least of all Mr. George, who at 55 sees himself as standing guard over his country’s history. A love of the outdoor life marked him from childhood, when he would fish with his father, hunt with his grandfather and lead expeditions of scouts. He was set to study English literature at Baghdad University but was steered to a French literature class that he said held no interest for him. He went to see the assistant dean, who told him that the only other opening was in archaeology. “I asked if that meant living in tents and excavating sites, and when he said yes, I jumped at the opportunity,” Mr. George recalled.

What he found was an intellectual passion that has endured to this day — one that brings perspective. “There are stages such as these, and then there are stages of calm,” Mr. George reflected. “Each can last 100 years, but it passes. A famous Sumerian writer described the scene here in 2000 B.C., saying that people are looting and killing and nobody knows who the king is. So you see, nothing is new.”

Well, a few things are: Mr. George was sitting in a comfortable office with cellphones, a computer, the Internet. American money and American experts have produced results.

More than $2 million from the State Department, the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos, Calif., and the Iraqi Culture Ministry have gotten the roof repaired, the telephone system transformed, the fences upgraded, guard houses built, the plumbing fixed, the windows washed, locks coordinated, the air-conditioning upgraded, surveillance cameras installed and an electronic security system activated.

After years of gradual decay under Mr. Hussein, the museum has had a face-lift.

“The assistance we have asked for from the State Department we have had, and we are grateful,” Mr. George said. Asked whether he thought guilt drove this American largess, he joked, “I would love them to feel that.”

But restoration is one thing, recovery another. Of the 15,000 pieces estimated to have been looted, many from museum storerooms, about 5,000 have been recovered. The identification has been complicated by the plundering of Iraqi archaeological sites since 2003, which has flooded the international market with items that are easily confused with museum pieces.

Most of the approximately 10,000 artifacts still missing are smaller items: gems, jewelry, terracotta figurines and cylinder seals. More than 40 larger unique pieces were stolen, like a 5,200-year-old mask from the Sumerian city of Warka, but most of those have been returned.

Mr. Russell said that the smaller artifacts “are easy enough to sell if you clean off the acquisition numbers.” Still, over time, he said, they may be identified and recovered if customs and law enforcement officials step up their efforts.

Mr. George takes a long view. “I am always hopeful,” he said. “This building contains the story of mankind; its lesson cannot be despair.”

He is still indignant that American troops did not guard the museum from April 10 through 12, 2003, in the initial days after the fall of Baghdad. “I blame United States forces,” he said. “A tank was close to the main gate. One of our people went and begged them to protect the museum but was told there were no orders to do so.”

Why the museum was not protected may never be clarified. United States military officers have suggested that Hussein loyalists as well as arms stockpiles were in the museum and that chaos prevented action. The museum is in a highly exposed position. All that is clear is that no order was swiftly issued to stop the looters.

Confusion at the time of the looting was compounded in its aftermath. The woman who first cited the exaggerated figure of 170,000 artifacts was initially identified as the museum’s deputy director but later found to be a former employee. The number spread like wildfire.

“A bum rap,” was how Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld characterized criticism of the military. Mr. George was accused by some American editorial columnists of exaggerating the losses, though his line from the outset was that quantifying the loss would take time.

The director learned long ago to wait the bad times out. Under Mr. Hussein, he had a sideline as a drummer for a rock band called 99 Percent — “of perfection,” he said — that specialized in Deep Purple songs and brought in much-needed extra cash. That’s an unwritten chapter of life under a dictatorship. Another is how Mr. George used work at Iraq’s thousands of archaeological sites to avoid Baath Party meetings.

Through the ghostly museum, Mr. George led the way, commenting on 500,000-year-old axes and clay tablets with cuneiform script and sacred objects from mosques. Some showcases are filled and some empty; packages of new equipment (including special drawers for clay tablets sent by the German Archaeological Institute) are still wrapped; date palms are being planted in the courtyard. Mr. George says that the museum, which was repeatedly closed and neglected while Mr. Hussein fought his successive wars, will one day emerge stronger.

One site already in perfect order is the Assyrian Hall, which survived the looting and is filled with monumental reliefs representing the summit of Mesopotamian art. A prominent presence is the winged bull, a protective spirit guarding Assyrian palaces and cities.

The bull’s body conveys strength; the wings, the magnificence of flight; the head of a man, enlightened wisdom. Created eight centuries before the dawn of the Christian era, 14 centuries before the beginnings of Islam, it was a striking representation of a seemingly invincible power.

Its time, of course, would end. The Babylonians would sweep away the Assyrians as comprehensively as the Americans, 26 centuries later or so, have swept away Mr. Hussein. Even a closed museum can teach that everything passes and nothing is quite what it seems.

So, Mr. George was asked, are the Americans the new Babylonians? “No,” he shot back. “The Babylonians were Iraqis.”