Tom Wilcox and I have been in Iraq for a week, at the invitation of the British Council, discussing with senior museum staff how to grow curatorial, technical and business skills and, perhaps most importantly, how to develop secure and sustainable business models rather than having to rely on the whims of disinterested politicians and a jumble of foreign philanthropic agencies. After 40 years of wars, invasions, and civil strife, with all the accompanying destruction and looting, Iraq’s brave curators and conservationists have an almost impossible hill to climb. Thousands of priceless artefacts have been lost, while thousands more were hurriedly hidden from looters but without time for them to be properly recorded and catalogued. There are an estimated 60,000 archaeological sites to explore, most of them completely unprotected. The day-to-day realities of life add further challenges; for example, Basra’s world-class museum, with 2,500 exquisitely curated artefacts displayed in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, can only be reached by negotiating a check-point controlled by one of the Shia militias – and there’s no public transport. But most problematic of all, the people of Iraq feel they have much more immediate concerns than the state of their museums. The economy is, at best, fragile, the institutions of government even more so. Climate change is a grim reality – it hit 50 degrees in Baghdad last week – and half the population is under 20 and with less than rosy job prospects. So, it was humbling for us to meet museum professionals passionate in their determination to upgrade their institutions, improve their practice and raise the profile of their museums as vital elements of Iraq’s present and future identity.
Mesopotamia was not just the cradle of civilisation; it was also the birthplace of writing. Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians and Assyrians were all obsessive recorders of their own history. While dramatic friezes tell the stories of battles won and treaties signed in bas-relief illustration, almost every stone or clay artefact we saw seemed to be heavily annotated – a sort of hi-end graffiti – ‘Nebuchadnezzar woz here’ – ranging from the detailed spelling out of legislation, trade regulations and government achievements to a small clay tablet on which some child has done their homework in rather uncertain cuneiform, with a note from Dad at the bottom thanking the teachers for their patience. This incomparably rich archive of written material makes it especially ironic that contemporary Iraqis know so little of their own extraordinary history, a state of affairs not helped by the fact that some of the more hardline politicians and militias view all pre-Islamic history with suspicion. So while the people we talked with are committed to reaching out internationally to tourists and scholars, their prime objective is to engage their fellow citizens, especially the young, as a way of creating a deeper sense of respect for the past and restoring dignity and self-respect to a nation that has suffered every kind of humiliation and disappointment.
We asked the Director of the State Board for Antiquities what his top priorities were. Rolling his eyes, he replied “Everything!”. Easy to understand why. Buildings need repair and better security. Fragile objects need a climate-controlled environment, but power-cuts are a daily experience. An absurdly over-centralised and lethargic bureaucracy leaves museum staff with little room for manoeuvre while the complexities of political patronage mean there is no career progression on the basis of merit. Foreign universities and embassies are keen to sponsor projects, but often with no sense of coherence – a handful of new showcases, a sophisticated digital camera, some new signage, a short training course – but, in the meantime, there’s no core funding to fix the roof or pay the staff. What’s desperately needed is a strategy that can bring some national common purpose to a group of directors working largely in isolation, an agreement between the many external funders to work in a more integrated way, opportunities for staff to develop their professional skills, resources to develop an online presence with the capacity to collect and analyse user data, and the business skills to generate revenues. It’s a wonderful privilege for Counterculture to be given the opportunity to help make this happen.