Cylinder seal impression of a Cypriot or Syro-Hittite seal excavated in Baghdad.


Cylinder seal impression of an Assyrian worshiper and priest before Ishtar. Excavated in Baghdad.


Anthropology Conservation Laboratory
What's New for June 2004

Iraqi 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 excavations.

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 other.

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 experience.


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