THE RETRIEVAL OF KUWAIT NATIONAL MUSEUM'S COLLECTIONS FROM IRAQ: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OPERATION AND LESSONS LEARNED
7 7. LESSONS LEARNED
Here is a summary of the lessons we learned.
7.1 7.1 The condition of the collections BEFORE THE Invasion
- The experience was a lesson in the importance of having a museum's stores in very good order. Objects already packed, rolled, or boxed as appropriate are easier to move safely and quickly.
- If objects on display have their own crates, boxes, or rollers and if these packing materials are clearly labeled (preferably also with a photograph) and accessible in the storage area, it is possible that they would be used in the event of a looting, which would save some damage. If there really is a danger of a collection being taken, it is actually more sensible to make its packing as easy as possible.
- If a collection is under threat, and there is no possibility of moving it to safety, making sure that all objects are clearly marked using that collection's numbering system should be a priority. Numbering with UV markers (the numbers invisible to the naked eye) could also be considered, so that if obvious identification numbers are removed, an object may still be identifiable.
- It is advisable to leave a copy of the inventory of each shelf or box nearby, taped to the shelf or in the box. Perhaps those taking the collection will use it, saving some confusion later.
7.2 7.2 Documentation
- A collection's cataloging system must be simple and sensible enough for people unfamiliar with it to use. Dar al-Athar now maintains both paper and computer records, and both systems have been kept as simple as possible.
- No collection's inventory and catalog information should be kept only and entirely on-site. A copy or backup should be kept elsewhere, and in certain cases in another country. Kuwait is such a case. Computerization of records is an obvious aid to making them portable and reproducible.
- Documentation should include measurements of all objects, particularly large items, to allow crates to be designed ahead of the operation to claim the objects. Documentation should also include photographs, either hard copies or scanned images. These photographs are an aid not only in identifying objects but also in assessing damage later.
7.3 7.3 Preparation for the recovery operation
- One of the greatest assets that Dar al-Athar had was an already established office, albeit small, in another country, with experienced staff and all the necessary office equipment to handle its new role as communication and administrative center for the recovery operation. In an ideal world, such an office would be another recommendation. Realistically, museums in this position would have to be prepared to set up such an office at short notice.
7.4 7.4 The recovery operation
- Think through the process well in advance. Paperwork for Dar al-Athar's records was designed in London, and as a result of planning it was possible to record quickly not only the information needed for the handover but also information about all objects not numbered, misnumbered, not photographed, or damaged before the invasion. This arrangement was to prove immensely useful later when there was a chance to work on improving documentation.
- Computers were not used by the Dar al-Athar team, simply because the museum was not yet using them. Laptops would have been extremely useful, but with the warning that, in such a situation, electricity supplies may be erratic or nonexistent. Power surges disabled two of the UN team's laser printers in the course of the operation. The wherewithal for making manual records as a backup should be taken along.
- Keep the system simple. During the six-week operation, an average of 1,400 objects or books were handed over per day. With the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah library, a list of the 100 most important volumes or sets of volumes was submitted, and it was agreed that if they could be traced, the rest would be taken on trust. Conservation condition reporting forms were printed up in advance, in checklist format so that, when necessary, recording could be done quickly. Time was very short.
- Take team members who are used to working abroad and can be objective in the particular circumstances of the operation. The situation was extremely tense at times, and it would have been very difficult on Kuwaitis. It was probably fortunate for all concerned that the Kuwaiti team had been withdrawn; as foreigners, we were perhaps more neutral. Even so, the operation was a strain, and we lost one of our packers, who dramatically developed a heart condition directly related to feelings of claustrophobia and fear brought on by our situation, and had to be flown out of Iraq.
- Take team members who know the collection. For the curators having to identify objects, the advantages are obvious. In the conservator's case, knowing the Dar al-Athar collection meant that it was possible to acknowledge objects that had been broken or otherwise damaged before the invasion. As the conservator's condition reports were to form part of the basis for the two museums' claim against Iraq, verifying previous damage helped to establish trust in a sometimes touchy situation. The UN emphasized that at any time the Iraqis could call the operation off, and it was necessary to tread very carefully. Although on the whole they were cooperative, tempers could and did flare unexpectedly on occasion.
- Assemble the team beforehand. Due to the particular circumstances at the time, the Dar al-Athar team was not able to meet together as a group to discuss the project at the planning stage. The fact that the end result was as good as it turned out to be was due to the skills of the head of delegation, who made herself our point of contact and coordinated ideas, requests, and so on. But face-to-face discussions would have been positive in building team spirit. As it was, working relationships between members who had not met before had to be forged on the operation itself. Had there been two teams as originally envisaged, the job might actually have been harder, as the working methods of the two museums might have been very different and blending all the staff into one working unit more complicated.
- It would have been an advantage to have had a second conservator and/or an experienced museum assistant to work in the packing room while the other conservator worked on the handover. This member of the team could have helped with the packing of delicate or broken objects, and the use of conditioned silica gel or any special boxes would have been easier to monitor. The packers were working under great pressure and at great speed and should not have been expected to deal with special packing requirements as well.
- Pack objects by media. Doing so makes appropriate storage easier when the objects reach their destination. If possible, prepare separate storerooms for objects needing humidification or dehumidification. It may be that crates will not be unpacked for some time, but this way they can at least be grouped according to the conditions needed by their contents.
- Pack objects that will need urgent conservation work separately, so they can be dealt with as quickly as possible after the recovery operation.
- Expect the unexpected. We were not informed until we arrived in Baghdad that the packers would have to travel for two to three hours to another airport outside Baghdad each time a shipment went out, thus losing most of a day's packing time for each trip. This necessity put them behind schedule. It would have been useful to have had backup staff on standby and the possibility of bringing them in to help.
- One of the clearest lessons learned during both the preparations and the handover itself was the value of a professional administrator as head of the team, particularly one who was familiar with the culture and political situation of the area we were working in.
- Take absolutely everything that might be needed; be self-sufficient.
- Then take more!