THE RETRIEVAL OF KUWAIT NATIONAL MUSEUM'S COLLECTIONS FROM IRAQ: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OPERATION AND LESSONS LEARNED
2 2. THE CONDITION OF THE COLLECTIONS BEFORE THE INVASION
2.1 2.1 The objects
2.1.1 2.1.1 Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah
At the time of the invasion, approximately 900 objects were on display and 2,000 were in storage in Dar al-Athar. There was also a library of books, modern and antiquarian, on Islamic art and the Islamic world. The collection and library were housed in a large modern building designed to lead the visitor through 10 interconnecting galleries around a spectacular central atrium in which hung the largest carpets. The objects were presented by period, from pre-Islamic through to Mughal India. The building was spacious and the display attractive. However, there had been little or no conservation input into the original design of the storage or display, and when I arrived, a survey of these aspects was one of the first priorities.
Generally, the objects themselves were in good condition. Most had been bought at auction in London and, as is often the case, had been restored beforehand. The museum had an office in London and any conservation or restoration of objects needed after acquisition had, until my arrival, been contracted out to various conservators in Britain. Objects not covered by my training as an archaeological conservator, such as manuscripts or rugs, continued to be treated in London, but I was, of course, responsible for maintaining them in the best possible conditions while they were in Kuwait.
The problems lay mainly in the fact that some of these objects, once in good condition, were in danger of deteriorating due to poor display, storage, or handling.
At my request, I was allowed to take down large palace carpets that had been hanging in the atrium for seven years. These had each been hung simply by one strip of Velcro on a wooden batten. Most were hung lengthways, which was eye-catching but hard on the carpets! Much smaller carpets were mounted onto calico backings stretched over frames, to provide a temporary display. It was a credit to the sheikha that she was willing to put up with these tiny replacements in her beautiful atrium. A proposal was accepted to bring a textile conservator to Kuwait to design and implement a better system for mounting the large carpets, but it was agreed that they could “rest” meanwhile. We cleaned them lightly and rolled them onto large tubes for temporary storage, covered with sturdy calico against the prevalent dust of Kuwait.
Storage was redesigned, particularly for some of the more vulnerable objects, namely the wood, textiles, and carpets. Because of the lack of relative humidity control or dust filtration in the museum, all wooden objects were lightly cleaned and packed in acid-free tissue and loosely sealed polythene. All fragile wooden objects, such as a large collection of long architectural panels from Mughal India, were packed on carrying boards or trays made to size.
Textiles and carpets that had been lying uncovered on the store floor were rolled and racked, with thick calico protective covers. A large collection of medieval textile fragments from Fustat had already been mounted at the Metropolitan Museum in Perspex cases, all with their own slipcovers.
Because of this work on the stores, and because so many of the carpets that should have been on display happened to be on rollers in storage, most of the textile and wood objects were to travel relatively well. The objects that were to suffer worst were some of those that were on display and then were difficult to pack well.
2.1.2 2.1.2 The National Museum
The National Museum did not have trained conservators on staff, so less of this work was done. However, the collection proved to be less fragile. Much of it was made up of archaeological material, mainly pottery sherds and very small objects, which were not especially fragile. There was also a very large amount of quite modern ethnographic material, which on the whole was fairly sound and sturdy.
2.2 2.2 Documentation of the collections before the invasion
Before the war, neither Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah nor the National Museum had computerized its documentation of the collections. This situation was to have profound implications for the recovery program, particularly in the case of the National Museum.
Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah's main archives of documents and photographs were in Kuwait, but there was a secondary archive in London. It would be good to be able to say that this arrangement was a result of efficient disaster planning, but in fact it was circumstance. Much of the collection having been bought in the auction houses of Europe, the financial paperwork was done in the collection's London office. Objects also were photographed professionally in London before being dispatched to Kuwait. Other information was gathered for the inventory by contacting everyone who had worked with the collection (curators, academics, volunteers, staff, auction rooms, and so on) to ask for any extra details or photographs. As a result, an inventory with photographs could be produced by the London office.
By Christmas 1990 the inventory had been put together, with as many photographs as possible, to give to Interpol and the United Nations. It was, however, quite rudimentary, not absolutely complete even though the collection comprised only 3,000 objects, and it had cost a great deal of effort. The need for efficient computerization in the future became very apparent.
Kuwait National Museum's archives were all in the museum, teaching us one of the most painful lessons learned in the invasion. Because the National Museum had no records outside Kuwait, or indeed at another site inside Kuwait, it could not assemble an inventory for Interpol or as a basis for the recovery operation in Baghdad.