THE RETRIEVAL OF KUWAIT NATIONAL MUSEUM'S COLLECTIONS FROM IRAQ: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OPERATION AND LESSONS LEARNED
5 5. THE RETURN OF THE COLLECTIONS FROM BAGHDAD
By now it was early summer. The two teams were given a rough time frame for the mission and asked to be on standby to go sometime in the autumn. The UN could not foretell how quickly the first recovery operations (gold bullion and the National Archives) would be finished, and therefore we would simply have to go when they were completed.
In the end, the whole operation was carried out by the Dar al-Athar team, as the National Museum team was withdrawn shortly before departure. They were all Kuwaitis, and politically it was deemed to be too sensitive to send Kuwaitis into Iraq so soon after the war. We therefore found ourselves going to Baghdad to check and receive a second collection with which we were not familiar, and for which we had no inventory. This situation had mixed consequences, which will be mentioned later.
The Dar al-Athar team was made up of an administrator (as head of delegation), two curators, a conservator (myself), an objects photographer, and four professional packers from an art shipping company used regularly by Dar al-Athar. The members were all British or American. There was no political reason for the nationalities of the team: these people were chosen only because they had had the most experience in working with the collection.
Back in Kuwait, two other members of staff handled the shipments of objects as they were gradually shuttled down in the UN cargo plane. The National Museum had prepared storage space for both the collections in one of its buildings that had not been damaged during the occupation.
5.1 5.1 Recovery: The handover process
The handover process was carried out in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the collections having been brought there from wherever they had been stored during the occupation of Kuwait—possibly near Mosul in the north of Iraq. It was organized and run by the UNROP staff, who oversaw the unpacking of all the material by the Iraqi delegation and the handover to the Kuwait delegation, item by item. The three teams sat at a horseshoe formation of tables, with the UN team between the other two. Each item had to be identified and its condition noted for the computer records made by the UNROP staff, which became the formal handover documents signed by the three heads of delegation. There would be a break for the signing of handover documents every few hours. Objects could then be photographed and packed.
A large room in the museum had been designated “Kuwaiti territory” (a curious concept, after the events of the last year), and no Iraqis were allowed in this room. Once objects were handed over officially to the Kuwait delegation, they went first to the photographer and then into this room, where the packers worked. This room was also the one place in the museum where the rather charged atmosphere of the handover was absent, and it was therefore a welcome haven.
Crates were flown down to Kuwait in batches of 2–7 tons at a time, when space was available on the UN cargo plane. The UN plane was not permitted to fly from the airport in Baghdad, and so shipments had to be taken out to Habaniyah air base, two to three hours outside Baghdad.
The handover took 6 weeks, working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. The UN had wanted it done in a shorter time because of fears that the political situation would deteriorate, but that was not physically possible. Fortunately the fears were not confirmed, at least not to the degree that the recovery operation was halted. The total amount reclaimed was some 50,000 objects and 20,000 books, forming 50 tons of cargo weight.
5.2 5.2 Problems encountered during the handover
5.2.1 5.2.1 The Political Situation
From the time of our arrival we were warned by the UN that it might not be safe for us to go out on the streets of Baghdad without an armed escort. Thus, at the beginning at least, we were confined to the hotel for the few free hours when we were not either working or sleeping. This situation became quite oppressive. We were also warned that our rooms were bugged and that therefore we should take care in discussing the operation there. Partway into the operation, some of us decided to risk the streets and venture out occasionally in the evenings. To our surprise and pleasure, we found that we were treated very hospitably, but we feared the hospitable attitude would cease.
Although the general populace was mainly friendly, the government was intent on raising tensions. The UN staff did not tell us until the worst was over, but at one stage they had begun to fear that there would be government-instigated riots aimed against the UN's activities in Iraq. They had begun moving supplies and a shortwave radio into the museum in case we had to barricade ourselves in the building rather than returning to the hotel, which would be an obvious target. Fortunately, the riots did not materialize. One of the UN vehicles had abusive graffiti spray-painted on it, but we saw no other direct hostility outside the museum.
The six-week recovery operation itself, however, did prove to be quite stressful. In any such operation, political tensions are likely to be present among the individuals, animosities may come to the surface, and circumstances may change dramatically. The Iraqis could have called off the handover at any time, so it was of great importance that everyone stay calm. As conservator, I was in the unpleasant situation of being the person to declare when and to what extent objects had been damaged, and I often found myself in the center of heated disagreement from the opposite side. It was important to prepare before each handover session so that all evidence was at hand and statements were carefully worded.
In the Iraq Museum, relations between the two teams were very stilted at first. Neither team knew the other, and we could only guess at the feelings and political orientations of the Iraqis working opposite us. It was hard to be objective and ignore the fact that they represented, at least nominally, the Iraqi regime that had invaded Kuwait, but it was crucial to do so. By the end of the first week, as each team realized that the other was willing to be neutral, the frost began to thaw. Cautious banter began across the tables; individual characters emerged. When flowers appeared on our table one morning, we knew they had decided they could work with us. In the course of discussions, it had come out that both Dar al-Athar's curator, Manuel Keene, and I had been in Kuwait during the invasion, and that I had been put into an internment camp. The Iraqi staff were also to find out that our museum had been torched after the collection was removed, the fire taking with it a pair of magnificent 14th-century Moroccan doors that were too big to move to Baghdad. They had not known of this event. The fact that despite these and all the other factors we were not only willing but determined to conduct the handover neutrally and professionally had, I feel, a profound calming influence on the whole operation.
At no time, however, could the Iraqis completely relax. Even we, as outsiders, had spotted the two supposed museum staff always in the background, never apparently doing anything. They were members of the Muhabarat, the security police, and they were there to watch the Iraqis as much as to watch us.
5.2.2 5.2.2 Identifying the Objects
The greatest problem to face us during the recovery operation, however, was simply identifying objects. The archaeological collections were the worst culprits. Hundreds of objects or boxes of objects had no numbers, or by now had meaningless labels or only their excavation numbers. These numbers are unique to each excavation and were almost impossible to use for handover purposes. All should have been registered as museum objects using the museum numbering system, but this procedure had often not been followed.
There was another complication in the business of identifying objects. When the collections had first arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqis had made their own inventory. Many of the objects in the Dar al-Athar collection had previously belonged to other collections, and it is the museum's policy to keep the old numbers or identifying marks of these collections alongside ours. Not knowing the numbering systems of the Kuwaiti collections, the Iraqis had recorded numbers at random: sometimes ours, sometimes old ones. Also, the staff compiling the inventory had little experience with Islamic objects, and these were frequently misidentified. The Iraq Museum staff involved in the handover were required to use this inventory, which they themselves had apparently not seen before. A translation from Arabic to English, made for our team by the UN, we suspected, had, through no fault of the UN, made things yet more obscure. The confusion was spectacular at times, and required much patience and good humor on both sides to untangle, as the Iraqis had to match every item on their almost incomprehensible inventory to one of our objects.
Even when the National Museum's ledgers and card catalogs were found in Baghdad, the system was so cumbersome, complicated, and incomplete that it was almost unusable in the very short time available. We used it as far as we could, but in the end we could only collect and thoroughly record what the Iraqis handed over. Ideally it should have been possible to assess losses and ask for missing objects while in Baghdad, but these steps had to wait until the collection was back in Kuwait and could be checked fully by its own staff.