Protecting Culture Baghdad


Following the latest “reopening,” in February, of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Stephanie Cash spoke with its former director, Donny George, and Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz, whose 2007 exhibition “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York [see A.i.A., Apr. ’07], included paper versions of objects looted from the museum in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Rakowitz’s project also featured a series of drawings titled “The Ballad of Donny George (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series),” which recount personal stories about George, who fled the country with his family in 2006 after receiving death threats, and who is now on the faculty at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

STEPHANIE CASH: There was a lot of publicity around the reopening of the Iraq Museum on Feb. 23. What do you know about the real situation there?

DONNY GEORGE: Well, first, I and some other exiled Iraqi specialists sent an open letter to the government expressing our concern. We were never against the opening, but the time to prepare the museum was very short by any standard. With the security situation that is still going on in Baghdad, I believe that this is not the right time to open the museum. But in mid-January the museum received the order from the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities that he wanted it to be open by mid-February because he had given his word to the media. I believe, with all due respect to the people there, that this was just political publicity.

SC: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pushed for the reopening as a sign of progress. And then there was some conflict between the tourism and culture ministries over whether to reopen and who had the authority to make the decision.

DG: Yes, officially, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which includes the Iraq Museum, is now connected to two ministries, which is a very odd situation. Originally, the museum was connected to the Ministry of Culture, which understands the work of the museum and the antiquities field. This new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities was created after the Americans turned over administration of the country to the Iraqis. This ministry should not include the museum, but this is how politics works now in Iraq: whoever is strong can grab whatever he wants. So the deputy minister of culture, Jaber al-Jaberi, objected to the reopening but Tourism and Antiquities went ahead with it. And it proved that we were right because the museum was just open for officials and invited guests. So it is not open for the public.

The director of the museum, Amira Eidan, said in an e-mail to me that we cannot call it the opening of the museum; we can call it an exhibition in the museum. They only showed an Assyrian relief, the winged bulls, and some Islamic materials that are all fixed to the walls and floors of the galleries, and they put objects that were stolen and returned in some of the display cases.

SC: And only 8 of 26 rooms were open?

DG: Yes, only 8 of them were open.

MICHAEL RAKOWITZ: These symbolic, or fake, reopenings, which really are photo-ops, have happened more than once. I remember reading about the museum being opened in July 2003 for U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, shortly after Rumsfeld made the comment about “stuff happens,” but it was only open for about half an hour. I think something similar occurred in late 2006. Is this latest reopening much different?

DG: I think they are trying to make it different, but it’s the same. I was there on July 3, 2003, when we displayed the gold treasures from Nimrud just to emphasize that they were safe, and to show that we had them protected in the central bank. It was just for two hours, and then everything was taken back to the bank and the museum closed. We cannot say it’s the reopening of the museum because then it has to be open for all kinds of people to come. But it’s not open, because the whole collection is not there, because the galleries are not yet ready, but mainly because of the security situation. Although they say Baghdad is much better than before, anything can happen at any time.

MR: I heard from McGuire Gibson and Geoff Emberling at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which keeps a database of the missing objects, that many of their Iraqi colleagues are still afraid to go to work.

DG: When I was in office there, because of the security situation, I arranged for only 50 percent of the staff to come on one day, and the other 50 percent would come the next, just to minimize any
casualties that might happen while they moved between their homes and the museum, or in case something happened at the museum. I think that is still going on, even now.

SC: How many objects are still missing?

DG: From about 15,000 objects, I think almost 50 percent are back. But again, the other 50 percent means something like 7,000 objects are still missing, some very important masterpieces among them. It’s a great loss.

MR: Geoff and McGuire say that our guess is as good as theirs because they are unable to communicate directly with their Iraqi counterparts on a regular basis. I think that electricity is only available about two or three hours a day in crucial parts of the museum, like the storerooms.

SC: Because of the security problems, the museum reopened with photographs of some of the artifacts, like the gold jewelry collection, instead of putting the actual objects on view. The idea of facsimiles as stand-ins also relates to Michael’s project.

DG: Absolutely. It’s something we used to do. Because of Iraq going through many wars, we were experienced with the evacuation of objects to secure places, and we would put whatever photographs we had in the display cases instead.

SC: Michael, you made replicas of some of the missing objects. What did you want to convey?

MR: I thought of the project as far back as summer 2005, and it came largely out of the sense of anger I felt. As an artist in New York committed to working in public situations for most of my career, I was dealing with making invisible situations visible—for instance, the inflatable shelters I made for the homeless [ParaSITE, 1997-ongoing]. But I started to work in a gallery context as well. It was possible to walk through the gallery district in Chelsea and not know that we’re living in a war culture, and that was something I wanted to make visible.

Immediately after the looting, the Oriental Institute went live with a website detailing the lost treasures of Iraq. There was a long history of partnership between the university and Iraqi institutions, so they had a massive collection of photos. They put up each work’s status as “missing,” “stolen” and, most commonly, “unknown.” The photos show the artifacts from all different sides and they have the exact measurements, so it made a sculptor’s job really easy in terms of replication. My assistants and I made them from the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs available in the United States, and the Arabic-language newspapers that you find in Arabic-speaking communities across America.

SC: After its showing in New York, your project went to the Sharjah Biennial in 2007, didn’t it?

MR: Yes, which was exciting because when it was displayed there it was 800 miles from Baghdad. From Sharjah, it went to the Istanbul Biennial, and when it arrived in Istanbul customs agents started to pull apart the artifacts looking for drugs or whatever else inside them. I got a call from the biennial organizers telling me about all the damage that had been done. So there was this weird mirroring of fates. For a while, I wondered if some of the works were too far gone in their damage, and whether I’d have to do exactly what the museum has done: show a photograph of the reconstructed artifacts in place of the real thing.

SC: How was the work received in Sharjah?

MR: It was very meaningful for me. The project won the jury’s art award. I wondered how it would be received in the Middle East because I knew how it was received in the States.

SC: Which was how?

MR: In the States, the replicas made our complicity less abstract for a lot of viewers. In 2003, I was hoping that outrage over the artifacts being stolen would translate to outrage over other bodies that were going missing. We all know the story of Dr. George and his family having to leave Iraq. I included him in my work because he’s an expert at this kind of artistic protest, like when he worked on excavations as a way to avoid Baath party meetings.

DG: I saw the exhibition when it was first displayed in New York. It was a wonderful protest from an artist. Showing this work in Sharjah adds another twist, because now we know that some of the Gulf states are involved in trafficking material stolen from Iraq.

[Above: Michael Rakowitz’s Bearded Male Statue (IM19754) (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), 2007, made from Middle Eastern food  packaging and newspapers.]