Saad Ahmed, the Mosul Cultural Museum’s head of conservation (left), and Zaid Ghazi Saadullah, the museum’s director, examine a wood cenotaph in the Mosul Cultural Museum’s Islamic Hall in February 2019.
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The building and collection of Iraq’s Mosul Cultural Museum suffered tremendous damage at the hands of the Islamic State group. Now, the museum is gradually being brought back to life through a unique international partnership between the Smithsonian Institution, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), the Musée du Louvre, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH). Since 2018, the founding members of this consortium have been stabilizing the building and collection in preparation for the full-scale rehabilitation. The goal is to return this museum to the citizens of Mosul as quickly as possible and to allow this important cultural landmark to showcase Iraq’s rich culture once again.
“Restoring the Mosul Cultural Museum represents a victory of knowledge over ignorance, respect over intolerance, unity over division, humanity over brutality,” said Richard Kurin, Smithsonian distinguished scholar and ambassador-at-large.
Six years ago to the day, Feb. 26, 2015, the Islamic State group released videos on social media documenting the destruction of the Mosul Cultural Museum, sending shockwaves throughout the world. This museum, the second largest in Iraq after the National Museum in Baghdad, housed pre-Islamic treasures from Nimrud and Hatra as well as Parthian and Assyrian masterpieces. The extent of the destruction was not known by the international community until the liberation of Mosul in July 2017.
One year later, in June 2018, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities requested that ALIPH financially support its project to rehabilitate the museum and its collections. ALIPH approved a first grant of over $1.3 million, and the Smithsonian and the Musée du Louvre joined the project to lend their expertise and support the Iraqi teams. Representatives from the Smithsonian, the Musée du Louvre and ALIPH then worked together with the Iraqi teams to identify the project priorities, and the Smithsonian stabilized the building by fortifying doors, replacing windows and reinforcing exterior fences.
The partners carried out a damage assessment of the collection, which revealed that much of the collection—including a colossal lion from Nimrud, the Banquet Stela, a monumental Lamassu and a precious wooden cenotaph—had been heavily damaged. Many museum artifacts had disappeared, and 25,000 volumes in the library had been burned.
As a first step in the preservation of the collection, artifact fragments were painstakingly sorted, documented, cleaned and stored. The Smithsonian and the team in Mosul then set up a basic conservation laboratory for urgent first-aid restoration of the objects on site.
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, local teams have continued their work in compliance with sanitary measures. In July 2020, IT equipment was delivered to museum staff so they could follow a complete training program prepared by the Musée du Louvre. In the second half of 2020, the Smithsonian provided additional recovery supplies to the staff and supported further stabilization measures for the museum building, such as stabilizing an outdoor Assyrian tomb exhibit, cleaning out the remaining rubble and debris from the administrative wing in the basement, repairing toilet facilities on site and clearing out the gardens for better security and to reduce fire hazards. In addition, Smithsonian staff provided training to complement the Louvre training sessions. Additional professional development and training for museum staff is scheduled to continue in the coming months.
WMF joined the consortium in 2020 and has been entrusted with the task of defining the restoration and rehabilitation program for the museum building and its surroundings. An expert mission it conducted in February will pave the way for a new stage of this collective effort: the reconstruction and development of the future museum, which is expected to reopen to the public within a few years.
About the Smithsonian
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. It is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, consisting of 19 museums, the National Zoological Park, education centers, research facilities, cultural centers and libraries. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 155 million.
Since 2015, the Smithsonian has helped train Iraqi cultural heritage professionals through the Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil. The Institution subsequently collaborated on cultural recovery work at Nimrud and the Mosul Cultural Museum. Smithsonian efforts in Iraq have been supported by funds from the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of State, Bank of America, the Mellon Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and Getty Foundation, in addition to the ALIPH Foundation.
About Musée du Louvre and Cultural Heritage Preservation
Following the widescale attack on cultural heritage during the 2010s, the president of France requested that the chairman and director of the Louvre Museum, Jean-Luc Martinez, write “Fifty Proposals to Protect the Heritage of Humanity.” The report was published in November 2015 and included the recommendation to create an international fund to safeguard heritage in situations of armed conflict. This idea became a reality at the Abu Dhabi International Conference on Endangered Heritage in December 2016. Created at the initiative of France and the United Arab Emirates in March 2017, ALIPH provides concrete support for the protection and reconstruction of cultural heritage in conflict or post-conflict regions.
Strengthened by the historical ties between the collections of the Louvre and the Mosul museums, the Louvre’s teams are contributing their expertise to the restoration of Mosul’s collections and to the training and guidance of its teams for the museum’s complete reconstruction.
About World Monuments Fund
World Monuments Fund is the leading independent organization devoted to safeguarding the world’s significant cultural places to enrich lives and build mutual understanding. For more than 55 years, working at more than 700 sites in 112 countries, its highly skilled experts have applied proven and effective techniques to the preservation of important architectural and cultural heritage sites around the globe. Through the World Monuments Watch—a biennial, nomination-based program—WMF uses cultural heritage conservation to empower communities and improve human well-being. In partnership with local communities, funders and governments, WMF seeks to inspire an enduring commitment to stewardship for future generations. Headquartered in New York City, the organization has offices and affiliates worldwide. wmf.org
About the ALIPH Foundation
Founded in March 2017 in response to the massive destruction of cultural heritage in recent years, ALIPH provides support for the protection and rehabilitation of tangible or intangible heritage in conflict or post-conflict areas. Based in Geneva, ALIPH is a public-private partnership and a Swiss foundation with the status of an international organization. To date, it has committed more than $35 million to over 100 projects in 22 countries across four continents. In Iraq, ALIPH has supported 28 projects since 2018 with an overall commitment of more than $9.2 million for initiatives in this country alone.
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