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Difference Maker

Saving cultural treasures in war-torn lands

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

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Vanishing artifacts hurt the world, says Brian Rose, president of the American Institute of Archaeology and a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. Ancient Mesopotamia – which included today's Iraq and parts of neighboring countries – is the birthplace of many political and social institutions, including written codes of law and the first libraries.

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"The preservation of culture equals the preservation of mankind's common humanity," Professor Rose says. "Gibson's work is part of that preservation."

Born and raised in Greensboro, N.C., Gibson attended a Roman Catholic high school. He spent two years training for the priesthood, but eventually left the seminary and transferred to New York University. His postgraduate work took him to Paris and London.

In the early 1990s, Gibson, his wife, and two young daughters moved to Paris, where he joined UNESCO as a consultant. Earlier, he had spent years working with museums in the former Soviet Union. His work with the Hermitage Museum remains one of his favorite projects.

His first job required him to spend six months in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, where he analyzed the impact that communism had made on the nation's cultural identity.

It was in Mongolia that he received his first lesson in treading lightly: He had to cajole the Chinese, Mongolians, and Russians to sit around a table and talk. That skill now serves him well in the Middle East, where tensions between various factions can run high.

Like many Middle Eastern museums, the textile museum in Kurdistan functions more like a glorified warehouse. Gibson recommended that the museum staff reach out to its community with educational programs and create exhibits that tell exciting stories.

Saddam Hussein squelched Kurdish heritage, Mr. Sipan says. "Saddam always tried to impose his own ideas of Arabic culture on Kurdistan. He forbade the display of Kurdish artifacts and didn't allow archaeological digs."

With Gibson's help, that is changing. He's able to give advice without embarrassing the museum's staff, Sipan says. That saved the museum, he says.

UNESCO also partners with nongovernmental organizations, such as the Paris-based International Committee of the Blue Shield.

"UNESCO is helping improve museum conditions in Kurdistan. Stuart has also volunteered to help us in future projects if a need arises," says Corine Wegener, president of the US Committee of the Blue Shield and assistant curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Fundraising for these museums is always a challenge, Gibson says. Projects must win the approval of governments, foundations, corporations, and individuals.

And the needs can be great. Sixty percent of the inventory of Baghdad's Contemporary Art Museum has disappeared. Recently, Gibson sat down with that museum's director. He helped her see that, despite the losses, she had an incredible opportunity now to start fresh, to redefine the museum.

He remains upbeat about all his museums.

"People say, 'You want to do what? You're mad!' " he says. "Yet this is precisely the time to show a country that the international community really and truly does care."

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