Lamia al-Gailani pulls a folder of crumbling letters from a battered metal cabinet – part of what she considers the secret treasures of the Iraq Museum.
The cabinets hold archives from the beginnings of the venerable institution, established after World War I by Gertrude Bell, the famed British administrator, writer, and explorer. Hundreds of thousands of documents and photographs, neglected until now, hold the untold story of an emerging nation whose borders "Miss Bell" helped to draw.
“Wonderful isn’t it?” says Ms. Gailani, an archaeologist. She pulls out photographs of the Iraq pavilion at the 1938 Paris Expo and a yellowing, typewritten letter from 1921 confirming the appointment of Bell as honorary museum director. “People probably thought these archives don’t exist. These are treasures that no one knows about.”
The archives, just now being catalogued after decades of neglect, escaped notice when thieves looted the museum's storerooms amid the chaos of the 2003 US invasion. At the time, the theft of thousands of antiquities as US soldiers stood by was one of the biggest scandals of the war. The museum holds not just objects from Iraq’s ancient history but artifacts from the very beginning of human civilization. The first cities sprung up around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. The first form of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets – developed here.
The museum has since been repaired, and most of the larger pieces stolen from the galleries have been recovered. Now, after years of failed attempts to host more than just occasional groups, its staff of several hundred is hopeful they are poised to throw open their doors to all Iraqis.
“We have coordinated with Baghdad security officials to secure the museum in a better manner than before, and we hope that we will succeed in opening the museum in the first half of 2014,” says director Qais Hussein Rashid. “We are determined to reopen to the public – to families and everybody. Not like last time, when it was open only for officials and for a limited time,” he says.
Work is continuing in the exhibition halls and on the main gate. The tank round fired by US soldiers returning fire from gunmen in the building was patched up several years ago, but the main entrance below it is still firmly shut.
And while visitors will see halls newly renovated by the Italian government, and even new finds from Iraqi excavations in the south of Iraq, they won’t see some of the world’s most dazzling archaeological treasures – hundreds of pieces of jewelry and golden pieces from Ur and from the royal tombs of Nimrud. The finds, displayed just once since the war, will remain in bank vaults outside the museum.
“Even just transporting them from the secured site where they are now would need higher approval than our ministry – it needs the prime minister’s council approval,” says Mr. Rashid of the more than 100 pounds of gold artifacts.
Seeing the effects of violence and neglect
The museum, whose art deco design dates to the 1930s when the structure was commissioned, is also struggling with ongoing violence in central Baghdad.
“We’ll need to repair this,” says press director Hakim al-Shamery on a recent day, gesturing at a damaged ceiling in a small room dedicated to displaying recovered looted artifacts. He points out cylinder seals and other small items sent back after being seized in the United States, Europe, and Arab countries. The fallen ceiling is a recent casualty, caused a few weeks earlier by one of the regular bombings at a nearby government ministry.
Neglect is another challenge. The priceless collection of Assyrian ivory panels from the palace in Nimrud, almost 3,000 years old, suffers from the lack of temperature control in the display cases. In the slow-changing museum, some of the exhibits are displayed just as they were in the 1960s.
But for Gailani, inspiration comes as she plumbs the battered metal cabinets, scattered throughout which are photos of the museum's glamorous past. Using an old desktop computer, Khitam Khadim, the head of the archives, has scanned tens of thousands of files and photographs that Gailani is trying to catalogue.
“I realized there were some things that no one had looked at before,” says Gailani, her enthusiasm undiminished after 50 years as an archaeologist in Iraq and Britain. “Everyone is always focused on the gold and the jewelry – they bypass these things absolutely, but it’s the history of the antiquities of Iraq from 1923 until now.”
Gailani credits Bell with the existence of the Iraq Museum, established at a time when many of Iraq’s archaeological treasures were taken away to London and Berlin early in the last century.
“Before that, foreign expeditions who were digging here took everything,” she says. “Now there she was saying, ‘I want some of it. Then she fought for a museum building.…There are hundreds of her letters here.… Really most of the documents of hers are begging for a museum until she got one.”
The archives are proving a treasure trove for a growing body of works about Bell, who, almost a century after her time here, remains a fascinating but enigmatic figure. A Hollywood feature film is now in production about Bell (played by Nicole Kidman), though it is focused more on her mysterious romantic life than her archaeological work.
“The men here liked her more than the women,” says Gailani, whose older relatives knew "Miss Bell." “She wasn’t a raving beauty but she must have had something because they were all fascinated by her.”