Thursday, 19 February 2009

Special edition - a great talk

[Per i lettori italiani, se ce ne fossero - non avevo la forza di tradurre, ma se necessario lo faro'...]

I am slowly growing to appreciate more and more the fact that I live in the same town as one of the great US universities, and that it organises a vast amount of interesting talks and events, many of which are open to the general public. (in fact, the whole campus is pretty open and non-student friendly - I think the dorms may be swipe-card access, but a lot of the other buildings are not, and it's a nice change from Oxford)

Last night was a case in point, as I went to a wonderful talk given by the former director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. And when I say former director, I mean the person who was there in 2003 at the start of the war, and witnessed the looting we heard about, and spent the following months and years trying to secure what was left and recovering what had been taken.

Just to give you a couple of figures, he estimates that 15,000 pieces were stolen (many of them very small), and of these only 3700 have been recovered. That's just under 25%. That's a lot of artifacts currently possibly lost forever.

In keeping with the general impressionistic tone of this blog, I am not going to try and add to the debate of what should have been done, was done, wasn't done, etc. It seems fairly undisputable to me, however, that if you are faced with dozens if not hundreds of locals with weapons ready to break into your building, it would have been nice to have an armoured tank or two at hand to help protect said building. Before it is stormed and looted. But never mind. I just wanted to share some thoughts and feelings that arose from this talk; I've been thinking it over since last night, and maybe writing things down can help me make sense of my ideas.

It must be said that Dr. George is an excellent, excellent public speaker. Clearly someone who has his rhetorical skills down to a fine art. Although he was speaking 'freely', as in, not reading from a script, he is clearly used to giving this speech and the way he used his words, his repetitions, his full repertoire of techniques just drove the point home. You would think it would be grating to an extent, this blatant display of oratory - but instead I found myself in quiet awe of it, much like when one reads a well-written Ciceronian speech. So that certainly helped make the message more effective.

The talk was essentially a commentary on a slideshow of objects from the museum - photos of them in situ, of them after being recovered, of them smashed to pieces, of the ransacked museums galleries. It may seem inappropriate at a time when so much is wrong in the world, to feel emotionally affected by the fate of a museum six years ago. And yet when I saw the images of the damage done, of galleries with smashed artifacts, I felt physically sick. I guess it's because it was just, well, so gratuitous. I can sort of understand the looting - you are stealing something because you hope to make a profit from it - but the random destruction? Of things that are thousands and thousands of years old? By the people whose culture and history this is? This is possibly the thing that gets to me the most - that this was wrought not by 'invaders'; or outsiders or conquerors or suchlike - but by the local people themselves. This is what I find hard to get my head round - that you would be willing to destroy something that has been set up to preserve, document, celebrate your own culture, your own past.

I suppose it's naive and perhaps even Guardian-reader-y of me to hope that museums and other similar places of culture would somehow never fail to inspire reverence and respect, and remain untouched havens whatever the situation may be in the wider world. I realise that a war, a foreign invasion, is a desperate event and being nice to museums isn't really top of anyone's priorities at that point, survival being rather more pressing (and in an oblique way, Dr. George sort of acknowledged as much). But that doesn't make it any less painful to watch.

At more than one point during the war, it was decided to secure the museum. This involved sealing all entrances, adding some steel doors, and then encasing the whole thing in thick cement walls. And then when it was ok to do so, it was all taken down (it took 3 days) and people went back to work. And then they thought it was necessary again, so they went through the whole thing once more. It's a very sensible precaution of course, and one that seems to have worked, but it was really rather sad to see the bricked up museum waiting for happier times.

Among all the gloom, there was a positive note, at least for me. It turns out that one of the groups that helped the most in recovering the lost goods, and subsequently helping in their restoration, giving supplies, training others, and contributing to the rebuilding of the museum were the Carabinieri and other Italian experts. It is nice to know that there are good things we have to offer, and we have made a tangible and positive contribution to this.

This was rather long, and perhaps disjointed - thanks for getting this far, if you have. More information can also be found here.


Fuffa said...

triste. anche per me è un gesto incomprensibile; ecco stamattina tra la lettura del giornale e questo post mi sono ufficialmente depressa. vado ad abbracciare un cucciolo.

Rob Jubb said...

I'd imagine the reason the Carabinieri have been helping is because Italy is notorious for the theft of antiquities, and so they've particular expertise in dealing with it.

Possibly reasons for destroying objects might be a) to increase the value of similar objects you've already got (by theft or otherwise) or b) to find out if they have anything valuable inside. There might also be a politics attached to the particular understanding of Iraqi nationality that the museum presented which could make destroying it make sense: imagine how you might feel about a Liga Nord run museum about the history of Italy.

But it is all very sad.

rachele said...

Rob - I agree with you about the Carabinieri, it had occurred to me too. Your point b) is very interesting and it was naive of me not to think of it - nothing was said about these kinds of things, so I don't know where they stand.

Fuffa said...

Wow. Not ONE of this possible explanations had ever occurred to me. I guess we are naive about the way people should treat antiquities, but I'll blame liceo classico for that!