THE RETRIEVAL OF KUWAIT NATIONAL MUSEUM'S COLLECTIONS FROM IRAQ: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OPERATION AND LESSONS LEARNED
1 1. INTRODUCTION
In 1990, at the time of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the Kuwait National Museum housed two collections: the national archaeological and ethnographic museum and the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, otherwise known as the Sabah Collection of Islamic Art. The two collections functioned quite separately, each with its own staff and in separate buildings.
In 1988, I had been invited to go to Kuwait to work as the conservator for Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, the arrangement being that I would spend three to four months of the year there, set up a laboratory, and manage the conservation of the collection. There had been no conservation input into the collection in Kuwait until then, and Dar al-Athar, housing some 3,000 objects, had been open since 1983.
Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, amassed from all over the Islamic world and spanning the 8th–18th centuries, is owned by a couple who are both members of Kuwait's ruling family, Sheikh Nasser al-Ahmed al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah al-Salem al-Sabah, and it had been put on long loan to the state so that it could be exhibited. Both felt that, with most of the great collections of Islamic art housed in museums in the West, it was time that one be on view in the Arab world. The collection at that time was rated among the top six Islamic art collections on public display anywhere in the world. Sheikha Hussah was, and still is, the director of the museum.
I was in Kuwait in July and August 1990 to oversee the packing of a traveling exhibition that was being sent to Russia and on around the world, and was made up of 114 of the most important objects from the collection.
Although it seems strange in retrospect, in July 1990 most people in Kuwait refused to see an invasion as a possibility. Saddam Hussein's regime had postured and threatened before, and the disagreements of that summer over oil rights and prices were certainly not expected to result in war. At the end of July 1990, therefore, with tens of thousands of Iraqi troops gathering on the border, there was no alarm. Many of the country's decision makers were out of the country for the duration of the hot summer months.
The invasion took place in the early hours of August 2 and, apart from fighting in the north of the city on the first day, was strangely quiet. It later became apparent that it was also carefully planned in many respects. On the first day, guards were posted on all institutions that the Iraqi government wanted to reserve for its own uses, to prevent looting. One of these was the National Museum. As the invasion occurred in the early hours, by the time we were awake on August 2 it was already too late to rescue anything from the museum. One of the Kuwaiti staff of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah went to the museum a few days later, posing as an interested student, and was asked if she knew where any of the keys were, so at least it was clear that the Iraqis had not yet forced an entrance.
In September, six weeks after the invasion, there was news that trucks had been seen outside the museum, and it was speculated that the collections were being moved north to Iraq. This proved to be the case. In the intervening five months before the liberation of the country, nothing reliable was heard about the collection's whereabouts.
I had been due to fly out of Kuwait on what proved to be the day of the invasion, and finally got out a month later, when the Iraqi government permitted Western women and children to leave the country. The collection traveling to Russia had also left the country—just in time—and went on to several venues in the United States during 1990–91, with the unexpected role of being an ambassador for the cause of Kuwait.