Sunday, 11 September 2011

Museum Looting, Tripoli Style

According to an excellent Guardian report, the rumours about the looting of the Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli that were reported here a few days ago turned out to be both true and false in a revealing manner. The museum located in the 16th century Red Castle, at the corner of former Green Square, opened 23 years ago, has a large collection of antiquities. these include "prehistoric paintings, spectacular mosaics, traditional desert clothes and interiors, and dozens of sculptures from the Roman city Leptis Magna". But apart from the ground floor devoted to glorifying Libya's past and traditional cultures, it had an upper floor devoted to glorifying modern Libya, or rather its leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The effect was that, as Dan Smith suggests: "visitors were left in no doubt that the flowering of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic cultures were mere historical footnotes to his own ascent as "king of kings"...". Here were exhibited mementoes of Gaddafi's rise to power:
[...] Gaddafi had airbrushed out of history King Idris, the country's monarch between 1951 and 1969, and Libya's early years of independence, instead devoting rooms to verses from his Green Book, agricultural and housing projects, gifts from foreign leaders, and thousands of photographs.
There were also two of his old cars. It was the latter series of galleries that were affected by an intrusion of a group of armed men mid-morning on 20 August 2011 (the day the rebels launched their first attack on the Libyan capital). Twenty armed men entered the museum, believing that there was a secret underground tunnel leading to one of Gaddafi's residences on the Mediterranean coast. When this proved to be false, they attacked Gaddafi's car.
Staff at the museum, which has been closed since February, had no choice but to let the rebels enter. Mustafa Turjman, head of research at the national department of archaeology, said: "It was a revolution – you can't resist. It was better to let the rebels in than have them enter by force. When they saw the objects belonging to Gaddafi they couldn't resist." But the vandalism was swiftly quelled by a plea. Mohamed Shakshuki, acting president of archaeology, said: "When I said, 'don't touch them', they stopped and left them. Some were educated people, like doctors, and they stopped the younger ones from making more damage. We were sad about what happened but thanks to God it was limited and can be restored".
Interestingly the Museum has pledged that the objects from the Gaddafi galleries would be restored and placed in storage or another museum as part of the nation's history, a refreshing difference to what normally happens in such cases. Apart from this, the museum is reported to have sustained only limited damage compared to what has happened in Iraq and Cairo.
Although there is graffiti in places and one broken window, just a cloak and a rifle, used in the Libyan resistance against Italian occupation, were stolen. These were of negligible value.
and an odd choice one would have thought. Most importantly:
Staff say they had time to prepare, spending two months registering, recording and transferring the most precious artefacts into storage at another site. These include 250 pieces of Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture, and 1,500 Greek and Ottoman gold, silver and bronze coins.
Photo: Roman statues in Libya's National Museum in Tripoli. These important artefacts remained untouched, unvandalised and unlooted during the revolution. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

David Smith, 'In Tripoli's museum of antiquity only Gaddafi is lost in revolution', Guardian, 11 September 2011.

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