Ariane Thomas, director of the Louvre’s Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, has been making regular trips to Iraq to help with the restoration of Mosul Museum. After being largely destroyed and looted, the museum is gradually coming back to life thanks to an international programme in which the Louvre is playing a key role. Interview:
What’s the history of Mosul Museum in Iraq?
A.T: ‘In Iraq, Mosul Museum is second in importance only to the National Museum in Baghdad, so it’s one of the country’s leading cultural institutions. It was initially housed in a former royal palace, then in the 1970s it was transferred to a new building in the palace gardens, purpose-designed by the renowned Iraqi architect Mohamed Makiya. Known as the ‘Mosul Cultural Museum’, it presented the history and culture of Iraq and especially of the northern region of Mosul, which is of particular historical interest. The city faces the archaeological site of Nineveh, which is at least 6,000 years old. It was the heart of the Assyrian Empire, and long before that it was part of the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’, home to the earliest known human civilisations’.
What did the museum’s collections contain?
A.T: ‘Before it was destroyed by Daesh in 2015, the museum displayed a wide range of objects from prehistory to the present day, including many masterpieces. It had three main wings showing treasures from the Assyrian, Hellenistic (essentially artefacts from Hatra) and Islamic periods. There were monumental bulls from Nimrod, Khorsabad and Nineveh, paintings, metal vestiges, remarkable mihrabs* and wooden cenotaphs**. It was a rich and varied collection reflecting the extraordinary heritage of the region and of Iraq’.
'The museum was largely destroyed and looted. It was found in a state of total devastation after the liberation of the city.'Ariane Thomas
Can you tell us what happened in 2015?
A.T: ‘Mosul is a very ancient and famously multicultural city. To give you an idea, from the Al Nuri mosque, right next to a synagogue, you could see the steeple of the Christian church. The city’s extraordinary wealth was reflected in its monuments. The capture of Mosul in 2014 and the ensuing occupation by Daesh were horrific. Mosul is a symbol of Iraq. Daesh deliberately set out to demolish the past by destroying the city’s treasures – not to mention the suffering inflicted on the inhabitants. The museum was largely destroyed and looted. It was found in a state of total devastation after the liberation of the city. There was still a bomb on the roof when I went there’.
What kind of joint project was set up with Mosul Museum in the aftermath of those events?
AT: ‘After the liberation of Mosul in 2017, the Iraqi authorities turned to the ALIPH foundation (‘International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas’) to get help with the renovation of the ruined museum. The ALIPH foundation was officially launched in the Cour Khorsabad at the Louvre, which resonates strongly with the Mosul Museum collections, so naturally the Louvre committed to showing its solidarity with the Iraqi museum. In 2018, this ambitious project was officially launched between the ALIPH foundation, the Louvre, the Smithsonian Institution,*** the World Monuments Fund**** and the Iraqi authorities. It’s an international project to fully rehabilitate Mosul Museum and allow it to reopen’.
What form does the project take?
A.T: ‘It consists of providing the expertise, logistics and human and material resources required to implement the renovation of the museum, with everything that entails. The top priority was to set up emergency measures: to secure the premises by clearing the museum of mines, mending the roof and consolidating the damaged floors so that people could walk around, but the fragments of artworks shattered by the explosions also had to be saved. The project participants are working with the museum teams to sort and classify the countless fragments with a view to restoring them – bringing them back to life with the help of restorers, some of whom have already worked in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Louvre has also drawn up a step-by-step plan to rebuild everything, hand in hand with the Iraqi museum teams: they’re at the heart of the project, it’s their museum, and we’re doing all we can to help them rehabilitate it’.
How has the project been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis?
A.T: ‘Well, we haven’t been able to go to Iraq every two months as we’d initially intended. During the lockdown, we had to review the form of the project and rethink its schedule. Paradoxically, that was beneficial in a way. We set up an online training programme for our Iraqi colleagues and we’re developing a pilot platform to exchange more efficiently on a daily basis. This period has given us time to better prepare the on-site missions we’re trying to organise at the moment, which are expensive and have to be as efficient as possible. I prefer to be optimistic, I tell myself we’ve learned to cooperate even better from a distance. We’re moving forward together, the project hasn’t come to a total standstill despite the global crisis, and that’s what matters most’.
* mirhab: a niche in a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca
** cenotaph: a funerary monument
*** The Smithsonian Institution is a museum and research group
**** The World Monuments Fund is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of endangered architectural and cultural sites worldwide
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