UNESCO to Help Preserve Iraqi Culture
By Suzanne Freeman

Iraqis gaze at the new exhibition of Iraqi treasures in the National Museum in Baghdad. The Iraqi National Museum briefly opened its doors to the press in July. Looting at the museum provoked an international outcry after Baghdad fell on April 9, but U.S. occupation authorities say many of the museum's most important items, including the world-famous treasures of Nimrud, have been accounted for. Still, scores of items remain missing, said museum director Donny George. The museum won't open to the public for about two years, George said. (Photo: Mikhail Metzel/AP Wide World)

Help is on the way. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken on the task of raising the money and awareness needed to restore Iraq's looted culture.

Besides widespread looting of the Baghdad Museum, art thieves ransacked the Museum of Modern Art and are continually stealing artifacts from archaeological digs.

As the birthplace of cultural civilization, the losses are devastating. Once the fifth most important museum in the world, the Baghdad Museum has lost 120,000 items, its computer databases, and laboratories. Even if it reopens in two years as planned, it will be without many of its most treasured possessions.

It will take more than returning lost treasures to put the museum back on track. In a meeting August 1, UNESCO pledged to begin training programs for museum employees. More importantly, perhaps, local police and security services will be trained in how to guard Iraq's cultural treasures.

Those treasures include the Museum of Modern Art, which was mostly destroyed by looters during the war. Iraq's most famous living sculptor, Muhammad Ghani, walked through the ruins of his 180 pieces, shaking his head.

"They broke what they did not steal," he said. "When I went to see what happened I walked over the pieces of plaster sculptures which I made in the 50s." Three of his most important bronzes were stolen.

"From the rest of the museum thousands of pieces have been stolen, all Iraqi art," he said. "Many were the work of pioneer artists of the early part of the last century."

The stolen art is expected to bring big prices in Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon.

Important public works of art are also being stolen. A statue of a beautiful young girl holding Aladdin's lamp and pouring water into a basin was stolen from the Ministry of Tourism.

"They came with a crane, tack, and a lorry and took it away, said Ghani.

UNESCO hopes to address all of these problems immediately. The group's first step will be to set up security systems within the looted museums. Also helping search for lost items are Interpol, an international police force based in Paris, France, and the U.S. Homeland Security Office.