National Museum of Iraq

The National Museum of Iraq (Arabic: المتحف العراقي) is a museum located in Baghdad, Iraq. It contains precious relics from Mesopotamian civilization, thousands of which were looted in 2003 during the Iraq War. On February 23, 2009, the museum was reopened for a day by Iraqi prime minister Al-Maliki, with about half of its looted contents still missing. The museum also has been renewed by adding more room to it, with more than 12 different countries assisting, as well as the United Nations.


It was established by the British traveller and author Gertrude Bell and opened shortly before her death in 1926. It was originally known as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum.


Because of the archaeological riches of Mesopotamia, its collections are amongst the most important in the world; and it has a fine record of scholarship and display. The British connection with the museum (and with Iraq) means that exhibits have always been displayed bilingually (English and Arabic). It contains important artifacts from the over 5,000 year long history of Mesopotamia in 28 galleries and vaults.

Recent history

Closed in 1991 during the Gulf War, out of fear of further U.S. air-strikes it was not re-opened until April 28, 2000, former President Saddam Hussein's birthday.

In 1997, Archaeology Magazine reported that Iraqi antiquities were being looted from Iraq.

Damage and losses during 2003 war

In the months preceding the 2003 Iraq war, starting in December and January, various antiquities experts, including representatives from the American Council for Cultural Policy asked The Pentagon and the UK government to ensure the museum's safety from both combat and looting. Although promises were not made, U.S. forces did avoid bombing the site.

On April 8, 2003 the last of the museum staff left the museum. Iraqi forces engaged U.S. forces from within the museum, as well as the nearby Special Republican Guard compound. Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz of the U.S. third Infantry Division stated that he was unable to enter the compound and secure it since they attempted to avoid returning fire at the building. Sniper positions, discarded ammunition, and 15 Iraqi Army uniforms were later discovered in the building. Iraqi forces had built a fortified wall along the western side of the compound, allowing concealed movement between the front and rear of the museum.

Thefts took place between April 10 and 12, when some staff returned to the building and fended off further attempts by looters to enter the museum until U.S. forces arrived on April 16. A special team headed by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos initiated an investigation on April 21. His investigation indicated that despite claims to the contrary, no U.S. forces had looted the building, and that there were three separate thefts by three distinct groups over the four days. While the staff instituted a storage plan to prevent theft and damage (also used during the Iran–Iraq War and the first Gulf War), many larger statues, steles, and friezes had been left in the public galleries, protected with foam and surrounded by sandbags. Forty pieces were stolen from these galleries, mostly the more valuable. Of these 13 had been recovered as of January 2005, including the three most valuable — the Sacred Vase of Warka (though broken in fourteen pieces,which was the original state it was found in when first excavated), the Mask of Warka, and the Bassetki Statue.

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: "the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Acadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay." Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.

In addition, the museum's aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.

The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.

One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, "estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue." The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum's second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum - the looters "probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts." It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

International reaction to the looting

The U.S. government was criticised for doing nothing to protect the museum after occupying Baghdad. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum said the looting was "entirely predictable and could easily have been stopped." Martin E. Sullivan, chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, and U.S. State Department cultural advisors Gary Vikan and Richard S. Lanier resigned in protest.

The extent of the looting of Iraq's National Museum has been disputed. Based on a miscommunication by the first crews on the scene, and the empty display cases in the main galleries that in most cases had held objects which museum curators had removed before the invasion, news organizations for weeks reported that as much as 100 percent of the museum's 170,000 catalogued lots (501,000 pieces) had been looted, when the true figure was around 15,000 items, including 5,000 extremely valuable cylinder seals.

Reacting to the incorrect initial reports that the museum was a total loss, French President Jacques Chirac on April 16, 2003, declared the incident "a crime against humanity."

Later in 2003, The Telegraph reported:

When asked why the U.S. military did not try to guard the museum in the days after the invasion succeeded, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "If you remember, when some of that looting was going on, people were being killed, people were being wounded.... It's as much as anything else a matter of priorities." Civil Affairs expert William Sumner, who was tasked with handling arts, monuments, and archives, explained that the postwar Civil Affairs planners "didn't foresee the marines as going out and assigning marine units as security. . . . The issue of archaeological sites was considered a targeting problem," to be dealt with by those flying bombing missions. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who described the period of looting in general as "untidiness", said of the museum's looting, "To try to pass off the fact of that unfortunate activity to a deficit in the war plan strikes me as a stretch." Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general but this museum in particular."

Two weeks after the museum thefts, when major news outlets still were reporting most of the museum's artifacts were gone, Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, General Director Research Studies for the Board of Antiquities in Iraq, said of the looting, "It's the crime of the century, because it affects the heritage of all mankind". After the U.S. Marines set up headquarters in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, George said he went there to plead for troops to protect the remainder of the Museum collection, but no guards were sent for another three days. Whether or not this was due to continued fighting is unclear.

Attempts to recover lost items

A few days later, agents of the FBI were sent to Iraq to search for stolen Museum property. UNESCO organized an emergency meeting of antiquities experts on April 17, 2003 in Paris to deal with the aftermath of the looting and its effects on the global art and antiquities market.

On April 18, 2003, the Baghdad Museum Project was formed in the United States with a proposal to assure the National Museum of Iraq every possibility of the eventual safe return of its collection, even if that is to take hundreds of years. Rather than focus only on law enforcement and the current antiquities market, the group set its mission as being to (1) establish a comprehensive online catalog of all cultural artifacts in the museum's collection, (2) create a virtual Baghdad Museum that is accessible to the general public over the Internet, (3) build a 3D collaborative workspace within the virtual Baghdad Museum for design and fundraising purposes, and (4) establish a resource center within the virtual Baghdad Museum for community cultural development. Various ancient items believed looted from the museum have surfaced in Jordan, Lebanon, the United States, Switzerland, and Japan, and on eBay.

On May 7, 2003, U.S. officials announced that nearly 40,000 manuscripts and 700 artifacts belonging to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad were recovered by U.S. Customs agents working with museum experts in Iraq. Some looters had returned items after promises of rewards and amnesty, and many items previously reported missing had actually been hidden in secret storage vaults at the museum prior to the outbreak of war. On June 7, 2003, U.S. authorities announced that world famous treasures of Nimrud were recovered from a secret vault in the Iraqi Central Bank. The artifacts included necklaces, plates, gold earrings, finger and toe rings, bowls and flasks. Officials said that of the 170,000 items initially believed missing, just 3,000 remained unaccounted for. And, of those, 47 were main exhibition artifacts. In November, 2003 Coalition officials reported a few dozen of the most important items remained missing from the museum's public galleries, along with another 10,000 other items—most of them tiny and some of them fragments. The ultimate figure is now estimated at around 15,000 and the tiny items include some of the most valuable artifacts on the antiquities markets.

The museum has been protected since its looting, but archaeological sites in Iraq were left almost entirely unprotected by coalition forces, and there has been massive looting, especially in the period just before the invasion (when Saddam Hussein pulled forces away from site protection) and between summer 2003 and the end of 2007. Estimates are that 400-600,000 artifacts have been plundered. A Colonel in the Marines named Matthew Bogdanos has led the search for these stolen artifacts since 2003.

Recent work

At various Iraq reconstruction conferences, the Baghdad Museum Project gave presentations to the reconstruction community advocating preservation of Iraq's cultural heritage in rebuilding projects. On August 27, 2006, Iraq's museum director Dr. Donny George Youkhanna fled the country to Syria, claiming "pressure to follow a radical Islamic agenda in the preservation of Iraqi antiquities made his position impossible.". Donny George held the position of visiting professor in the anthropology department of the Stony Brook State University of New York until his death in March 2011.

On June 9, 2009, the treasures of the National Museum went online for the first time as Italy inaugurated the Virtual Museum of Iraq. On November 24, 2009, Google announced that it would create a virtual copy of the museum’s collections at its own expense, and make images of four millennia of archaeological treasures available online, free, by early 2010. It is unclear the extent by which Google's effort overlaps with Italy's previous initiative.


The museum has opened its doors on only a few occasions since the invasion. It opened on July 3, 2003 for several hours for a visit by journalists and Coalition Provisional Authority head J. Paul Bremer, as a signal that things were returning to normal. In December 2008, the museum was opened for a photo opportunity for Ahmad Chalabi, who returned a number of artifacts supposedly handed in to him by Iraqis. The latest opening occurred on February 23, 2009, at the behest of Iraqi prime minister Maliki, to demonstrate that things were returning to normal. Many archaeological officials protested against this opening, arguing that conditions were not yet safe enough to put the museum at risk; the museum's director was fired for airing her objections. In a ceremony to mark the occasion, Qahtan Abbas, Iraq's tourism and antiquities minister, said that only 6,000 of the 15,000 items looted in 2003 had been returned. In a book published in 2009, it was estimated that 600,000 archaeological pieces were looted by Kurdish and Shia militias allied with the United States since 2003.


On September 7th 2010, the Associated Press reported that 540 looted treasures were returned to Iraq.

News and editorials
  • Bogdanos, Matthew. Interview with Allan Wolper. Matthew Bogdanos. Conversations with Allan Wolper. WBGO. June 17, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-07-27.
  • The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum, The New York Times, April 2, 2006 by Roger Cohen
  • Thousands of Iraqi artifacts found, CNN, May 7, 2003
  • Missing Antiquities: Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain, The New York Times, May 1, 2003
  • Relics: Experts' Pleas to Pentagon Didn't Save Museum, The New York Times, April 16, 2003
  • Antiquities: Curators Appeal for a Ban on Purchase of Iraqi Artifacts, The New York Times, April 16, 2003
  • Hundreds of looted items returned to Iraqi museum, CNN Web Site, November 11, 2003
  • Iraq and Ruin, The Guardian, May 2, 2003, Neal Ascherson interview with Donny George
  • Donny George: A Real-Life Treasure Hunt, Newsweek, March 21, 2005

Coordinates: 33°19′42″N 44°23′07″E / 33.3283°N 44.3854°E / 33.3283; 44.3854

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