Basra Museum comes with a view and a British-funded library
LONDON - The new Basra Museum in southern Iraq has been allotted a library of approximately 3,000 books donated by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq to promote the country’s history and heritage. The museum includes hundreds of precious artefacts that date to Iraq’s Sumerian, Assyrian and Islamic civilisations.
The library was stored in tin trunks in the French and British embassies when the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), formerly the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, closed in the 1990s after the first Gulf War.
“We hope the library, like the museum, will become a resource not just for Basra but for the whole of southern Iraq and the wider region,” said John Curtis, chairman of the Friends of Basra Museum (FBM), which raised funds to set up the museum.
FBM and BISI are assisting in compiling an online catalogue and a campaign for additional book donations is envisaged.
“There are people looking to see what they can do with their private libraries and it would be great if they donated books. We hope the Arabic section will be built up by the people in Basra,” Curtis said.
The first gallery, which opened in September 2016, displays artefacts relating to the history of Basra from the Hellenistic period (circa 300BC) through to the Islamic period. Three galleries — Sumer, Babylon and Assyria — opened in March this year.
Baghdad sent about 2,000 new objects, including pieces from the original Basra Museum, which was housed in a Turkish courtyard facility on the banks of Ashar Creek. The museum was looted in 1991 during the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The new museum is housed in Saddam’s former Lakeside Palace. The idea of setting up a museum was first discussed in 2007. British Army Major-General Barney White-Spunner had been appointed commander-in-chief of British troops and general officer commanding the Multinational Division South-East. He asked Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor and Curtis, who was keeper of the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, about what he could do to protect and promote cultural heritage.
“We asked for a survey of archaeological sites in southern Iraq to see how badly they had been looted and to look at museums in the area to see what state they were in and whether they could be put back into service,” Curtis recalled.
It was decided that the Lakeside Palace would be the best location for a museum. Qahtan al-Abeed, the director of the existing museum, embraced the project because the looted museum was not fit for the purpose. It was in an old courtyard house, in poor condition, in an insecure part of the town and unsuitable for displaying and safeguarding high-value archaeological and historical material.
It was assumed that funding would be made available by the British government and the Department for International Development after the army withdrew from Iraq in 2009 but this did not happen.
“There was a plan of the building and a proposal for a museum project, but no funding,” Curtis said. He approached BP, which provided $500,000 to renovate the building and set up the first gallery.
The British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund set up to protect cultural heritage at risk because of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa provided $930,000 to complete installation of the three remaining galleries, to assist with museum staff training and to establish the resource centre.
Curtis emphasised that FBM was not running the museum or telling the Iraqis how it ought to be operated. “These need to be Iraqi decisions and we are there to facilitate not to impose or take decisions,” he said.
He said FBM would assist with setting up the library, which was expected to be open in December, and to help with English labels and information panels for exhibits.
“It is going to take some time to bring these up to a high standard,” Curtis said. “The director of the museum has ambitious aims to introduce audio-visual aids and museum guides which can be downloaded as apps on a mobile phone.”
With the museum almost complete, the FBM trustees are considering what to do next.
“The Basra Museum is on the Shatt al-Arab River, a very attractive location. The museum of natural history is nearby and there is another building that could become a museum of modern Iraqi history. The whole area could become a cultural park,” Curtis said.