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Society, Politics & Law

The virtual museum of Iraq

Updated Friday 9th December 2011

As the American forces move out of Iraq, Dick Skellington reflects on what has been lost of the cultural heritage of Babylon, and how a remarkable new virtual museum opens a window on a civilisation dating back to the 6th millennium BCE.

Screengrab of the Virtual Museum of Iraq Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Virtual Museum of Iraq This month American soldiers will finally leave Iraq, the country they invaded in 2003. During the traumatising years between 2003 and 2012, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians perished, first to the Americans then to internal civil strife between Sunni and Shia which tore the country apart, while the Americans retreated to the Green Zone in Baghdad. 

In any war there are other casualties, apart from flesh and blood. Truth of course is an everyday victim, but often what is also lost is something immeasurably valuable, a country's cultural heritage. So it was with Iraq, in 2003, when American neglect allowed looters to rampage and rape the treasures of its National Museum. 

Now a remarkable website invites you and me, any one with online access, to tour the wonders of the ancient Mesopotamian empire. 

The Virtual Museum of Iraq is a true internet masterpiece, a site of immense value which attempts to reconstruct those lost relics and treasures, and allows the visitor to access the rich artefacts and beautiful art of antiquity.  The history of Iraq is also part of our history. Gazing at this site one realises one's place in humanity.

The National Museum of Iraq was founded by the British Arabist and traveller Gertude Bell in 1926 and was home to one of the world’s finest archaeological collections. During Saddam's reign, the Museum was funded to connect the Baathist leader with Iraq’s earlier days of glory. 

It was closed in 1991 because of the Gulf War and was not reopened until calmer times in 2000, but the American invasion changed all that. There were no 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq, that we now know, though many said as much at the time of the invasion. But the war destroyed a significant part of Iraq's cultural heritage. Currently only a third of the halls of the original National Museum still stand.

On February 23, 2009, at the behest of Iraqi prime minister Maliki, to demonstrate that things were returning to normal, the National Museum reopened. In a ceremony to mark the occasion Iraq's tourism and antiquities minister said that only 6,000 of the 15,000 items looted in 2003 had been returned. 

In a book published in 2009, it was estimated that 600,000 archaeological pieces were looted by Kurdish and Shia militias allied with the United States since 2003. Many of these treasures are still lost, some are over 10,000 years old, but at least the Virtual Museum allows us to see some of them once more, and provides us with access to some of the remaining treasures of the National Museum, and some of those returned items. 

Experts believe many items have been smuggled out of the country and are in the possession of private collectors. According to the United Nations cultural body, UNESCO, about 40 to 50 of the lost items are considered to be of great historical importance.

The Virtual Museum is a virtuoso tour de force. It is available in English, Arabic and Italian and is the result of a cultural collaboration with Italy.  At a cost of over one million euros. this magnificent website brings to life the treasures of antiquity. Italy helped repair and recover many stolen artefacts after the bricks-and-mortar museum was ransacked. The Virtual Museum reflects the priceless cultural of from Mesopotamia from prehistoric times to the late Islamic.

After a flash video introduction, the site delivers the user to the "Museum" itself, a Main Entrance with eight different doors leading to various "halls:" Prehistoric, Sumerian, Akkadian and Neo-Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Achaemenid and Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian, and Islamic. Each hall looks like a museum space, with about eight objects in a room and a map on a wall (or in one case, a ceiling). Clicking on any linked item will zoom the viewer closer to the object and offer some options for further examination. 

The virtual exhibit does not seek to reproduce the Baghdad museum but rather give a broad look at the art and history of a land that hosted some of mankind's earliest civilizations and later became the scientific and literary hub of the Medieval Arab world. It is a site of huge educational importance and potential. I can not recommend it highly enough.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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