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May 13, 2014

Exhibit Review: "Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past" at the Royal Ontario Museum June 2013 – January 2014

By Dr. Susan Douglas, professor at the University of Guelph, Canada and ARCA writer-in-residence 2013

In April 2003, the plunder of the Iraq National Museum became headline news. The museum was ransacked systematically. Many priceless antiquities were stolen, including the museum’s entire collection of cylinder seals and the Warka vase, a masterpiece. Other items were badly damaged or destroyed, many of them permanently.

Along with material culture, institutional memory was altered dramatically during the events of April 8-12. The Library and the offices and archives of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage were targeted specifically. As looters raided the historic museum arsonists destroyed the National Library ruining a valuable scholarly database in the process. The database, maintained by museum staff, contained extensive records of Iraq’s ancient cultures; it is now slowly and painstakingly being rebuilt with help from specialists in many countries.

Catastrophe! succinctly presented the subtle consequences of political conflict and war. Originally developed by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and revamped for the Royal Ontario Museum, this exhibition aimed to educate the public as to the devastation of Iraq’s cultural heritage. It drew attention to the issues, illuminating the threat stealing history and civilization poses for society. It delivered the message that iconic collections, historic buildings, archeological sites, and information are all under constant threat as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

The space was filled with texts and images, signs, rather than objects: powerful emblems of the underlying losses we’ve collectively suffered in the “land of two rivers,” former Mesopotamia.

There were six sections in this exhibit: Introduction; The Museum; Archaeological and Heritage Sites in Iraq; The Importance of Archaeological Context; Looted Artifacts; and What Has Been Done: What Can be Done? Protecting the Past. Site destruction -- the physical removal of objects from archeological sites, was a critical theme. Along with the destruction of Bagdad came the plundering of archeological sites in the region, a more pernicious threat to cultural heritage. In May 2003, over 300 looters were digging at Isin, a former capital of Mesopotamia discovered by Europeans in the 1970s. Isin was a significant center in the twentieth century BCE, when pilgrims travelled there to worship Gula, the goddess of healing, and to be cured. Signs and ritual tokens, in the form of cuneiform tablets and cylinders seals, were thought to aid in the healing process. When the worshippers left, these relics were left behind, and now they are the record of an ancient civilization and a resource be preserved and shared. They tell us, first and foremost, about our common history and identity. When archeological sites are desecrated our ability to understand past cultures is seriously hindered. This is why the protection of historic sites is a crucial.

We can all do our part as a society to stem the illicit trade in antiquities. The Looted Artifacts section shows looters brazenly producing “fresh” artifacts for sale, exploiting war conflict. Many articles are smuggled out of their countries of origin by organized criminals into the hands of collectors in just this way. The link between collecting and trade is clear; as an image of a box discovered in a market crammed with cylinder seals and other small relics still bearing accession numbers illustrates. In Iraq, though a few of the 15,000 items reportedly looted from the museum’s storerooms have since been recovered, most of them have disappeared into the illicit art market and are never likely to be found unless we all take responsibility as stakeholders.

This was a didactic exhibition. Warning: New knowledge. Some visitors might have left saddened. Others may have experienced a call to action.

Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past was presented at the Royal Ontario Museum as a complement to Mesopotamia: Inventing our World that I will review in my next post.

Dr. Douglas, a writer and curator in Toronto, is the founding editor of the Glossary of Modern Latin American Art (Wordpress). Http:// The Glossary (GALA for short) contains many references to art and crime in Latin America and a University of Guelph project.