23 Feb 2009

A looted museum and a satellite phone

I remember the horror when we entered the plundered Baghdad Museum two days after the Americans took the Iraqi capital in April 2003. We picked our way through broken shards of pottery and destroyed statues – the looters had smashed as well as grabbed. A lone archaeologist was wandering around in shock. “We would have been better off keeping Saddam Hussein,” he said. “At least people were scared of him.”

We told the American forces at the Palestine Hotel that no one was guarding the museum. Nothing they could do, they said. They were Army. That part of town was Marines. Not their problem. The looting continued for several days as American forces looked on. When told about it, the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld shrugged, “Stuff happens.”

The following day, we returned to the museum and found the director of research, Donny George, who had shown us round several times before the war. He was in his office, weeping. I started crying too, so we sat there together sobbing about the theft of Iraq’s history.

All he wanted, Donny said, was to talk to his friend John Curtis at the British Museum, so we got out our satellite phone, and put Donny onto John. It was his first opportunity to tell his fellow curator what had happened and to ask for help. We filmed the conversation at our end, and Nic Glass, the C4N arts correspondent, had a camera at the British Museum.

Watch the phone call from Baghdad to the British Museum.

Now I have a confession to make. I had an extra satphone which belonged to a US network which had skipped Baghdad before the war, leaving me to report for them. If some of the greatest treasures of Mesopotamian history had gone missing, I figured, it really didn’t matter if a satphone disappeared.

So I slipped it to Donny George. In the subsequent weeks, he used it to call the Smithsonian and other great centres of learning to publicise the plight of the Baghdad Museum.

A few months later, back in London, I received a message – there was a package for me at the British Museum. It was the phone – Donny had come to consult with curators here, and had brought the phone. So I returned it to its rightful owners, who have never asked about the cost of all those international calls…

Donny George has since moved to New York, and today, the Baghdad Museum has re-opened, a symbol for the Iraqi government of how far the country has come.

Yet British Museum curators remain worried. They say security is not yet good enough and the stolen objects which have been returned have not been adequately catalogued. I share their fears – Baghdad is still a volatile place. We have not seen the end of history in Iraq.

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