Saving cultural treasures in war-torn lands

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

Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Stuart Gibson, senior cultural consultant for UNESCO, in New York. His most recent work was in Iraq.

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.

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.

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.

"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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