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Difference Maker

Saving cultural treasures in war-torn lands

Stuart Gibson circles the globe to help endangered museums undergo rebirth.

By Cathryn J. PrinceCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2009

Stuart Gibson, senior cultural consultant for UNESCO, in New York. His most recent work was in Iraq.

Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Weston, Conn.

Stuart Gibson reveals not one soupçon of jet lag as he recounts his just-concluded visit to Iraq's Mosul Museum, now a husk of a building where chunks of plaster still litter the floor. Instead, this champion for preserving world cultures seems to radiate energy.

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Mr. Gibson has become a world traveler: helping a textile museum in Kurdistan, organizing a cultural conference in Mongolia, assisting the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. As senior cultural expert for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he's devoted the past 19 years to saving museums threatened by strife.

"Every museum has a soul," he says. "It's different for each of them. You have to be very sensitive to the soul, to the spirit of the space."

His graceful style and gentle suggestions have won him many friends.

"We've been isolated from the entire museum world, that is true," says Lolan Sipan, curator of the Kurdish Textile Museum in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region. "Stuart Gibson spent three weeks in Kurdistan helping us and giving us advice. During the time that he worked with us, it became personal."

Gibson often befriends his drivers and translators. The friendships result in relationships that span decades. Yet he also understands the need to tread lightly, that ultimately he is a guest in whatever country he is visiting.

"I like impossible projects, it's the missionary in me," says Gibson, who is on the road nearly 300 days a year. "We are all part of the same human body, and no one should be left out of it. I have a soft spot for projects that have been left out in the cold."

Because he finds letting go of a project so hard, he doesn't like to just pop in, offer advice, and leave.

"Iraqi experts are thirsty for truly international equal cooperation, and Dr. Stuart Gibson is the person who can offer it in a very gentle, but professional way," says Tamar Teneishvili, UNESCO's culture program specialist for Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.

Six years of war has imperiled museums in Iraq. This fall, Gibson became the first museum specialist to visit Iraq's Mosul Museum since its looting in 2003. Many of its prized objects, including 2,000-year-old maps and atlases, have disappeared.

Four armored vehicles and 16 soldiers waited while Gibson toured the museum. He was given just two hours to assess the state of the museum, everything from its inventory and staffing to its scholarship and funding needs.

Although it will be some time before any tour buses park in front of Iraq's museums, his visit, and the display of US force, delivered a message, Gibson says: The United States values Iraq's culture. That's a significant gesture, since the US only recently rejoined UNESCO after withdrawing in 1984.

"Museums in Iraq are the keepers of the wealth of Iraqi cultural heritage. Fixing them is extremely important in a country that is, without any exaggeration, a cradle of civilization," Ms. Teneishvili says.