June 15, 2003

Academia wrestles with Baghdad looting misstatements

In today's Washington Post, Prof. John Russell tries to come to terms with how he was misled about the scale of the Baghdad museum looting:

Now a lot of people are asking me, as an expert in Iraqi antiquities, how I feel about the dramatic reduction in the estimated losses from the looting of the museum, from initial reports of 170,000 objects -- the entire collection -- missing or damaged, to recent claims of only 33 objects lost.

This is wonderful news, I reply, which often elicits the response, "Yes, of course, but how do you feel about being so badly misled?" Most people I know share my relief that so much of the collection survived, yet many also feel that their noble instincts were manipulated not only to produce shock and grief at a loss of such unprecedented magnitude but also to provoke rage at the cultural callousness of the United States in failing to prevent this predictable tragedy. I can sympathize with those who feel conned. For two weeks after the looting I must have been known as the weeping archaeologist, regularly breaking into tears on air when asked to describe my favorite things lost in the looting, pieces I have come to cherish in more than two decades of visits to the museum. As it turns out, some of my favorite things are still missing.

So why did the museum staff apparently make such exaggerated claims? I don't know.

Russell goes on to mention some possibilities, but maintains a safe agnosticism while continuing to express his trust of and sympathy towards the museum staff. He goes on to further rationalize their actions:
For two days, the staff was left to defend the museum on its own. This is when it was first reported that the museum had been completely cleaned out. It seems to me that under these extreme circumstances, this report (no matter what might be said about its veracity and its intent) had two beneficial effects.

First, it took advantage of the media presence to convey to looters that there was nothing left to steal and they might as well look elsewhere. The alternative -- to spread the word that much of the unprotected collection might still be intact -- would have been utter folly.

Except that there was no power in the city and next to no access to broadcast media there. And with only a few minutes' thought, one can come up with any number of stories that would have accomplished the same sort of misdirection without having to cry wolf (such as claiming that there had been some looting, but that the bulk of the collection was in off-site storage under US military protection).
Second, it drew worldwide public attention to the threat to the museum, bringing pressure on the Americans finally to secure the building. Better late than never.
But was it that pressure that finally led to the museum being secured, or was it only then that the manpower could be spared from combat duties? Giving the impression that the museum had been completely emptied could also have backfired: why protect an empty shell?
So, am I angry with the museum staff for making me feel so bad right after the looting? No. It's difficult to be irritated with people who so effectively protected so many of my favorite things against such enormous odds.
That's a pretty generous free pass. There are many others who are more than just "irritated": such as the journalists, accused by Donny George of misreporting for having taken him at his word; such as the occupation authorities, going all the way up to Bush and Blair, pilloried as the greatest despoilers of culture in centuries; such as practically-minded preservationists, whose efforts to protect other Iraqi sites from despoliation now face public skepticism and even hostility.
In mid-May I visited the museum as part of the first U.N. cultural mission to Iraq after the war. As I walked through the empty galleries with the museum's director, Nawala Mutawalli, I would point to familiar display cases and ask about favorite objects they once contained. Usually she would smile slightly and say, "It's safe." I wondered why we hadn't seen those pieces when we visited the storerooms, but I didn't pursue it. Because I trusted her, I believed they were safe. I later learned that those pieces were in the secret vault. But not everything is.

Among the "hardly anything" stolen from the public galleries is the beautiful and haunting marble face of a woman, a piece from Uruk, home of the legendary king Gilgamesh. Its classical perfection is unsurpassed. (If the Mona Lisa were stolen from the Louvre, would we heave a sigh of relief that hardly anything was stolen?).

Of course we would -- at least if looting mobs had rampaged through its galleries, and tearful curators had appeared on TV, wailing that everything within had been smashed or stolen.

Russell then goes on to point out, quite rightly, the quantity and importance of the "minor" objects lost from the storerooms, which have been too often passed over in recent articles which focus on the most spectacular and iconic pieces:

A preliminary inventory of a small part of one storeroom, under the supervision of occupation authority investigators, revealed that 2,100 objects were missing. Their estimate of objects stolen from the study collection now stands at only 3,000, which I think is wildly optimistic. It is pure guesswork. Conducting a complete inventory of the stores will take many months, and the final total could well be far higher. Just last week, Mutawalli, the museum director, estimated that 12,000 pieces were missing.
Yet ultimately, Prof. Russell's essay is altogether too representative of the academy's response to the events in Iraq: as the professoriate was too quick to outrage, so now it remains too slow in taking full responsibility for its own missteps:
I see last week's news reports, which in my opinion minimize the known losses from the museum, as a backlash against the early exaggerated figure. Instead of everything being lost, now it's almost nothing. This couldn't come at a worse time.
True enough; if you recall the original folk tale, crying wolf carries a rather steep price once the wolf finally arrives.

Posted by David on June 15, 2003 11:00 AM


Thank you.

Posted by: Ernie on June 15, 2003 10:28 PM

the "original folk tale" is still partially true, so far as i can tell. To recap:

"the entire contents of the National Library are lost beyond retrieval" and "1,500 modern paintings and sculptures from the city's Museum of Fine Arts are still missing".

Posted by: adam on June 16, 2003 11:18 AM

i just realised that the witty intro to my comment makes no sense and is actually not witty at all. damn.

the point i'm trying to make is that all this it-wasn't-as-bad-as-those-idiots-said talk tends to forget about the library and the other museum, which are pretty significant sites in my opinion.

Posted by: adam on June 16, 2003 11:27 AM
Post a comment

  Remember Me?

(For bold text to display correctly, please use <strong>, not <b>)