Memories of a Broken Museum: Ten Years of SAFE

Roger Atwood10 years after, Article, CommentaryLeave a Comment

SAFE is grateful to Roger Atwood for sharing this personal reminiscence with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. The photos accompanying this reflection are previously unpublished and exclusively SAFE’s.


Roger AtwoodA little over 10 years ago, after a long flight from Washington and an overnight taxi ride from Amman, I arrived at the ruined Iraq Museum. By then, it was known around the world that thousands of artifacts had been stolen in the chaos following the arrival of American troops in Baghdad. There was still some question about how many artifacts had been robbed and exactly how the looting had happened, questions that would be answered over the next few months by journalists, investigators and the museum’s towering curator of antiquities, Donny George. On that day in May 2003, it was clear only that looters had wrecked one of the Middle East’s great institutions while American troops, who now sat desultorily in lawn chairs near the entrance to the museum, had been unwilling or unable to stop it.

I had expected to find the museum in some disarray, judging from news reports. Yet nothing could prepare me for what I saw. After a long interview with Donny in his office, I wandered down the hallways and galleries and found the place completely ransacked. It was a scene of total destruction. In offices, bookcases had been overturned and file cabinets emptied of their contents, their papers lying all over the floor. A desk stood on its side, boxes were overturned, windows broken. A large, metal safe looked like it had been wrenched open with a crowbar, its door flung open to reveal … nothing. An empty safe. In one corner there were some blackened papers, as if someone had tried to start a fire. In the galleries, the glass from busted display cases lay scattered on the floor. Bits of stone lay around, as if someone had taken a hammer or chisel to a now-disappeared sculpture. Most alarmingly, apart from those U.S. soldiers outside, there seemed to be no security at all. No one stopped me as I wandered from room to room. I seemed to have the whole place to myself.

A few days later, Donny and the museum’s director Nawala al-Mutwali led me and a few other journalists on a tour of the ruined galleries, including many I had not seen that first day. We saw where looters had dragged the ancient, iron masterpiece of naturalistic sculpture known as the Basetki statue down a flight of stairs, breaking each stair as they yanked it along. Where the Warka vase had stood, we saw just a broken pedestal and a pile of broken glass. In room after room, Donny showed us shattered vitrines, empty shelves, damaged stone carvings. One large sculpture, I can’t remember which one, stood at a strange angle out in a hallway; apparently the looters had tried to haul it away but gave up because it was too heavy. Crude hammers and other tools lay on the floor.

Here and there were signs of how the museum’s staff, at least some of the staff, had tried to prevent the destruction. Foam padding lay underneath the largest stone sculptures. Curators had placed the padding to protect the pieces if they fell during the aerial bombardment that preceded the invasion, Donny explained. Much of the collection had been moved off-site, to protect it from just this sort of disaster, he said. I asked him about the Sippar library, a collection of 800 cuneiform tablets dating from the early first millennium B.C., which had been widely reported destroyed in the looting. “It is safe. It is out of danger,” he said, in that voice of warm reassurance and authority.

Amid all this destruction, I was surprised to hear Donny express some optimism that the museum could rebuild and reopen. Maybe it could recover the stolen objects. He and Matt Bogdanos, the American army colonel, were already working up plans to persuade, cajole or bully the thieves to return as much of the loot as could be traced. “The theft was like a wound to my body, like somebody had cut me,” Donny told me that day. But he added, “The collection is basically intact. We can rebuild.” Over the next year or so, it became clear that about 15,000 objects had been stolen, mostly cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals taken from the museum’s storerooms. I understand that most have since been recovered, including many, but not all, of the marquee items that were carted away from the main galleries. Donny worked for the rest of his life trying to rebuild the museum, recover its stolen antiquities and reopen it to the public, even after he was forced to flee the country due to threats to his family in 2006.

SAFE was born of the international outrage at the theft in the Iraq Museum and –even worse – the pillage of archaeological sites all over Iraq by looting mafias looking for treasures to sell on the global antiquities market. A group of scholars, students, professional and members of the public came together in 2003 to say, this must never happen again. As the memory of that appalling act of vandalism in Baghdad fades a little, I’m glad SAFE continues to work to call attention to the destructive power of the illicit antiquities trade and to the legacy of Donny George. That spirit — his spirit — of acknowledging the loss of heritage while working without discouragement to put the pieces back together, that determination to keep the problem of looting in the public eye, are what motivated Donny and what inspires SAFE. I’ve been proud to be a part of this organization.

Happy 10th anniversary, SAFE.

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Roger Atwood

Roger Atwood is a Contributing Editor at Archaeology magazine, a London correspondent for ARTnews and author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, which won the SAFE-Beacon Award and was made into a segment on the History Channel series Save Our History: FBI Stings. He has held an Alicia Patterson Fellowship and a Knight International Press Fellowship and written on cultural heritage for publications including National Geographic, The Washington Post and Mother Jones. He speaks regularly on heritage issues, most recently at the conference "Vulnerability and Cultural Heritage" at the University of Leicester, UK. He lives currently in London.

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