seal impression of a Cypriot or Syro-Hittite seal excavated in
seal impression of an Assyrian worshiper and priest before Ishtar.
Excavated in Baghdad.
What's New for June 2004
Colleagues Visit the Conservation Lab
Museum professionals from Iraq were chosen to participate in a
variety of training practicums and to work alongside their professional
counterparts at the Smithsonian from March 12-25. This visit was
organized by the Council of American Overseas Research Center and
sponsored by the State Department's Bureau of Education and Cultural
Affairs. Twenty-three individuals came from Iraq to participate
in this program. From this larger delegation, ten participants
were chosen for the Department of Anthropology – five for
the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory and five for Collections
Management. Those selected for the conservation lab included two
archeologists, one librarian, one cuneiform specialist, and a caretaker
for historic houses in the city of Baghdad. All are employed by
the Iraq National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad.
From initial interviews, we learned from our Iraqi participants
that there are twenty museums in Iraq, with three in Baghdad. They
are all archeology museums. The National Museum in Baghdad began
to acquire collections in the 1930's, and is an enormous complex
with eighteen exhibit rooms and five storage areas. The museum
is divided among the following departments: Education, Central
Storage, Cuneiform Tablet Storage, Registration of Artifacts, Exhibits,
Museum Management, Recovery of Stolen Artifacts, Stolen Artifacts,
and Conservation Laboratories. As the museum is primarily an archeology
museum, the employees are generally archeologists. In 2002 collections
from all the other museums in Iraq were sent to the museum in Baghdad
for safekeeping because of the war. This made storage an enormous
problem as there was not adequate space for all of these additional
collections. Photographs of the museum illustrate this with stacked
pottery and objects lying on the floor in the aisles. Photographs
of the exhibit space, on the contrary, indicate quite barren areas,
as they removed objects off exhibit, also for safekeeping. The
other museums have had replicas made for exhibit of the objects
sent to Baghdad. With the war, some institutions tried to restructure
after the Bathists were removed. This led to destabilization and
vacant positions. The museum specialists who were with us work
only inside Baghdad now because it is too dangerous to work on
The excavation sites are also not protected now. Before the war
guards of the archeological sites would come to them if there was
an attack on the site and they would investigate. Now they are
unable to go to the sites because of lack of personal protection.
This has paved the way for looters. Before this, if there was any
illicit activity against the site the person would stand trial,
and the punishment could be severe. In this way the sites were
well protected against vandalism and theft. Our participants told
us there is already a plan for this year, 2004, to begin again
to re-excavate the sites, and the archeologists have already been
appointed. All of this, of course, will depend on the general situation
of the country.
We began our practicum each day with a short video on collections
care. The video provided a basis for discussion and often a springboard
to the practicum for the day. The days would end with surfing the
internet. Only one or two participants had experienced the internet
and were delighted to find Arabic and museum collections care sites.
Our participants also joined with their colleagues in the Collections
Management lab and together they participated in certain practicums
that were suitable to all of them.
A number of the group were archeologists by training, and were
very eager to learn new field archeology techniques. Deb Hull-Walski,
director of the Collections Management lab, arranged a day at the
National Capitol Region’s Museum Resource Center, in Landover,
Maryland. Here they learned, in addition to storage practices,
current archeological methodologies. Archival care was of particular
interest to our librarian intern. Susan McElrath of our Anthropology
Archives gave a lecture and demonstration on care and handling
of books and paper. We gave a practicum for testing materials so
they could easily test unknown materials for storage and exhibit
when they returned to Iraq. Silica gel in its various forms was
discussed and the use of hygrothermometers in storage and exhibit.
We selected objects from our Mesopotamian collection for our participants
to practice making storage supports and boxes. Our lab volunteers
make the majority of our storage supports so we matched interns
to volunteers and together they made very usable storage supports.They
delighted in making these and were proud to show them off to each
Catherine Magee spent a morning talking about conservation techniques
in the field and showing relevant slides. We found their techniques
to be similar to ours, such as documenting damaged objects through
written reports and photographs, and repairing objects on site.
They estimated repair of 80% of the excavated artifacts occurs
on site by the archeologists. Any problem objects are sent to their
conservation lab in Baghdad, where eight conservators are employed.
Otherwise, the objects are transferred directly to museum storage.
The conservation lab in the National Museum is their resource for
appropriate adhesives to use and instruction on how to repair objects.
The conservators go to the field to transfer large objects, murals,
or fragile plasters. Laboratories outside of Baghdad are small
and ill equipped.
Because of their concern for the large numbers of cuneiform tablets
in their collection, and which continue to be excavated, Mei An
Tsu, a conservator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was invited
to meet with our participants. Cuneiform tablets are a speciality
of hers, and together they shared their concerns and preservation
ideas for these delicate and valuable artifacts.
McGuire Gibson, of the Oriental Institute and archeologist in
Iraq for many years, spent a day with us, discussing the present
situation of the Iraq museums. He mentioned the National Museum
is about to have climate control installed for the first time.
Previously, only the library had a climate controlled environment.
These two weeks were a sort of immersion for all of us, as we
tried to speak some Arabic, ask some delicate questions about the
war in Iraq, concentrate on providing information that they needed,
learn as much as possible in a short time about their work, and
mutually respect and enjoy our cultural differences. It was also
an opportunity to learn directly from the people responsible for
the museum collections in Iraq. The experience was rewarding
on many levels. We felt no resentment directed towards us as Americans
at all, only enthusiasm for learning, humor, and a candidness when
speaking about their situation. We felt we had each gained colleagues
and we hope this understanding and appreciation for one another
will have a ripple effect as they and we tell others about this
the previous What's New
Return to the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory