Tuesday, February 24, 2009
By Steven Lee Myers Tuesday, February 24, 2009 BAGHDAD: Well over half the exhibition halls in Iraq's National Museum are closed, darkened and in disrepair. And yet, the museum whose looting in 2003 became a symbol of the chaos that followed the American invasion officially reopened on Monday. Thousands of works from its collection of antiquities and art some of civilization's earliest objects remain lost. The smell of fresh paint infuses the Room of Treasures, which even now is deemed safe enough for only photographs of the intricate gold and gem-studded jewelry made in Nimrud nearly 3,000 years ago, not the real thing. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki pushed to reopen the museum, against the advice of his own Culture Ministry, as a sign of Iraqi progress. Symbol it was, and symbol it remains not only of how much Iraq has improved, but of how far it has to go. "It was a rugged wave and strong black wind that passed over Iraq, and one of the results was the destruction that hit this cultural icon," Maliki declared in a dedication ceremony that was shrouded in dispute and secrecy until the last minute. "We have stopped this black wind, and we have resumed the process of reconstruction." Yet the museum is only one institution in a place where little not electricity or even sewerage functions as it should, nearly six years after the beginning of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein. The museum, like life here, may be more secure than at any other time since then, but it is not normal. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the museum's roof and watched from sandbagged redoubts as Maliki, other senior officials and foreign diplomats arrived. Helicopters thudded in the sky, and the police blocked streets for miles around. Inside, in stark contrast, visitors filled 8 of the museum's 26 galleries, engaged in hushed conversations before glass cases displaying ancient pottery and sculptures, cuneiform tablets from Sumerian and Babylonian times, and the stunning 2,700-year-old stone reliefs from the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad. (In size and shape, the reliefs eerily recall the blast walls that protect buildings and divide streets in Baghdad.) Welcoming the diplomats as a bagpipe ensemble played in the garden outside, Iraq's minister of state for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, said Iraq wanted visitors "to see that Baghdad is still the same as it was in their eyes and has not turned to ruins, as the enemies of life wanted." On Monday ordinary Iraqis that is, those not invited could get only as close as the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the museum's collection of buildings, offices and warehouses at the corner of Qahira and Nasir Streets in central Baghdad. Dozens clutched the fence's bars and shouted out appeals, vainly, to the prime minister or other officials who came and left in armored convoys. Among those at the fence was Zahrah Latif, a 40-year-old woman without a home. "God willing, Iraq will be better," she said, the museum a mere afterthought, "but we're here to see Maliki." When Iraqis may actually see for themselves a collection of relics and art that spans millenniums was a question even the museum's deputy director, Muhsin Hassan Ali, dared not answer, even when pressed. The museum's directors have twice before ostentatiously opened the doors. In July 2003, the American civilian administrator in Iraq at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, toured some displays only weeks after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed the looting by saying, "Stuff happens." In December 2007, the museum's director allowed a group of journalists and politicians inside for a fewhours. The museum remained shuttered, though, battened down against the violence swirling outside. Not until now has Iraq's government officially declared it a working institution again. Monday's event itself proved controversial, provoking an unusually pointed dispute between ministries of Maliki's fractious government, each with its own agenda. Jibouri's tourism agency announced the reopening ceremony two weeks ago and issued invitations, only to be challenged by the Ministry of Culture, whose officials argued that the museum and its collection were not yet ready for the public. They complained that the holdings were in disarray, many of them waiting to be catalogued, and that the museum's basic security remained in doubt. "It is a risk to open the museum at this time," Jabir al-Jabiri, the ministry's senior deputy, said in a telephone interview. The museum's former director, Donny George Youkhanna, who fled in 2006 after threats against him and his family, said the museum required years' more preparations to reach international standards of curatorship, conservation and security before it could safely accommodate museum-goers. "I believe the museum is being used in this case for political reasons only," he wrote in an e-mail message from Long Island, where he has since worked as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Maliki's government, though, overruled such objections, and Monday's ceremony went ahead without Jabiri and other Culture Ministry officials, who boycotted in protest. Another deputy, Fawzi al-Atroshi, later said that the ministry, which officially overseas Iraq's museums, was considering opening the museum at first only for one day a week and only for foreigners, students and VIP's. For a day at least, once Maliki's entourage departed, people once again walked freely through the museum's galleries, which still showed wear in places, despite the new paint. The museum, also known as the Iraq Museum, has been extensively, if not completely, refurbished with financial assistance from Italy and the United States, including a $14 million grant announced last fall by Laura Bush. It still requires a heating and cooling system, security systems and training for a staff that has remained in professional limbo for years. One hall that opened on Monday was devoted to objects taken during the looting and since returned, having been seized by customs officials at the borders. Other halls displayed works that had been in storage and were only now being seen, including two smaller-than-usual versions of the mythical winged, human-headed bull created during the Assyrian empire, as long as 3,000 years ago. The museum's workers, who witnessed the looting and then endured nearly six years with a closed museum and uncertainty inside and outside the building, sounded elated simply to have company again in what for years were deserted galleries. "You can tell by our faces how we feel," Thamir Rajab, a conservation specialist said, beaming as he pointed out several of his favorite sculptures. The staff learned two months ago that it would reopen in February. As Rajab put it, they then crammed two years' of work into those two months. "We did the best we could," he explained, wistful that the museum remained less than what it once was. "This is what we could do now. God willing, one day we will do more."