THE RETRIEVAL OF KUWAIT NATIONAL MUSEUM'S COLLECTIONS FROM IRAQ: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OPERATION AND LESSONS LEARNED
4 4. PREPARATION FOR THE RECOVERY OPERATION
The liberation of Kuwait took place in January 1991, six months after the invasion. The return of the collections occurred in September–October 1991, after the UN's establishment of a presence in Iraq. It was thanks to the work of the UN that the collections were traced, and it was the UN that established the understanding with Iraq that the collections would be returned. This arrangement was part of a much larger restitution program, to include gold bullion taken from the central bank, the National Archives, the two museum collections, civil aviation, and major equipment, in that order. The UN formed an agency for this purpose, called UN Return of Property (UNROP), and the staff of the two collections were asked to form teams to go to Iraq for the handover. The two teams agreed to employ the same professional packers to provide materials and travel to Baghdad, and this aspect was to be organized by the head of the Dar al-Athar team.
The UN then arranged permission for two members of the Dar al-Athar team to go to Baghdad ahead of the handover to assess how much of the two collections was there and therefore how much packing material would be needed. There were real fears as to what they would find: newspapers by now had been reporting that jeweled Mughal daggers and illuminated Qur'ans from Dar al-Athar had been given by Saddam to his generals as rewards for their part in the war. It seemed a miracle that anything had been found at all.
The news was good. The sheer bulk of material that the staff found in the galleries of the Iraq museum, although mostly still packed and therefore hard to examine, was encouraging. This visit was one of the most important factors in the subsequent smooth running of the recovery operation. Although in the end the team members were allowed only three hours to make their assessment, in that time all the largest objects were measured for crates, the volume of the library books (found stacked in heaps on the floor) was calculated roughly by measurement, and the number of trunks and boxes of objects was counted. From these figures, it was possible to make an estimate, albeit very rough, of the amounts of packing materials needed.
After the brief visit to Baghdad to assess how much of the collections was there, plans were made by the company of professional art shippers appointed to accompany us to Baghdad, in consultation with Katie Marsh, the head of the recovery team, and me. Seven tons of packing materials were flown to Kuwait, including the numerous crates made to size for the largest objects. A large margin of safety was added in calculating the loose packing materials (tissue, corrugated paper, cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, etc.), in case of error. Almost all of it was used, in fact, because the National Museum collection proved to be much larger than had been indicated. Other supplies taken were trolleys, lifting gear, industrial stacking trays, stationery, first aid kit, even large supplies of coffee and a coffee maker.