Monday 4 May 2009

The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

"The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum" a new book by Lawrence Rothfield presents the background to the events of April 2003 and the looting of the Baghdad Museum. An extract appeared today on the Iraq Crisis discussion list.

The failure to take steps to prevent the looting of the National
Museum ofIraq in Baghdad—and the less publicized, though far more devastating, ongoing looting of Iraq’sarchaeological sites—must be understood within this larger short-term context of failure to protect any number of arguably more important assets.

Rothfield shows that during the crucial early period of May–October 2002, however, no one involved in planning for the future of Iraq had a stake in cultural heritage. It simply did not register as an object of governmental concern, as something about which a policy needed to be designed. The writer places the blame on the lack of existence of a proper cultural heritage policy in the US itself:

This might not have been the case in many other antiquities-rich countries where cultural heritage enjoys a sustained high-level governmental presence in the form of ministries of culture, antiquities boards, and so on. Those cultural bureaucracies have the visibility, clout, and permanency to enable them to develop standing relationships, educational programs, and even integrated operations with military forces, all designed to promote heritage protection. [...] just as our military posture is different from those of other countries, so is our attitude to our heritage—and more generally, to our culture. American suspicion of governmental involvement in cultural matters is deeply engrained, enshrined in the First Amendment. Indeed, the quasi-official line has long been that America has no cultural policy; when in 1999 the Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative to shape one, the foundation was savaged as advocating a Soviet-style ministry of culture. This deep-rooted antipathy is reflected in the absence of any cabinet-level post representing the public interest in culture, and in the relatively minor roles in cultural life played by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and other minor federal or quasi-federal offices.Not only are America’s cultural bureaucracies weak, scattered, and uncoordinated, but they operate under very restricted mandates dealing with trade, conservation, domestic funding of the arts, and other peacetime issues affecting cultural goods. They are neither responsible for nor designed to address wartime or postwar situations. Consequently, governmental offices administering cultural heritage did not bring themselves to the attention of those planning for the upcoming conflict—even when working within the same agency.
Rothfield's analysis of the US situation may go some way to explaining why there seem to be the attitudes we find among collectors from the States about the archaeological resource protection legislation of other countries where such systems aree in place and better organized than in the USA. Does this failure to create a system make the USA more "enlightened" than those other countries, or the converse?

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