The looting of the Baghdad Museum

We had family visiting us in NYC from Virginia and Chicago this weekend. One of the places we took everyone was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Schools were closed, so the Museum was absolutely jammed with visitors. As we were walking around, I thought about the losses suffered by the Baghdad museum, which has been described as having the greatest collection of Middle Eastern artifacts in the Middle East. The “looting” was detailed in a Salon article.

I imagined how much poorer NY would be if the Met were looted. The cultural loss, the irreplaceable artifacts, a jewel of the city destroyed. I tried to visualize a mob of crazed NYers looting the Met.

It was at that moment that I realized the looting story — at least the version reported on TV and in the mainstream press — was sheer and utter nonsense. Though I don’t doubt the museum suffered in the post-regime chaos, the “official” story does not ring true to me.

Here’s why:

After the viewing the Manet/Velasquez show, we strolled through Islamic Art, then the “Ancient Near Eastern Art”, and then onto the Egyptian collection. (All viewable here: Ancient Near Eastern Art, Egyptian Art, Islamic Art)

Pictures do not do the collection any justice. You must be physically present to feel the scale.

Although there are plenty of smaller items — jewelry, portraits, earthenware — throughout the galleries, the bulk of what is on display is, well, bulky. As you tour the galleries, you are stricken by the enormity of the work. These pieces are simply massive, and the materials — stone, granite, marble — exudes heft. Statues, architectural details, sarcophagi, headresses, pillars, vases. Most of these things are simply enormous, and must weigh in the tens of thousands of pounds.

Even the medium statues appear to weigh many tons. That these items were created thousands of years prior to mechanical lifts, cranes or power tools only adds to the awe and wonder they inspire. But even smaller items must weigh a few 1000 pounds apiece. (4:53pm: I’ve read that the cuneiform tablets missing from the museum were palm sized and easily portable).

It also makes the visual of a frenzied mob’s spontaneous “snatch and grab” utterly laughable. Anything of size which was removed was likely the result of careful planning, coordinated teamwork, forklifts, trucks and lots of cautious packing. Oh, and a lot of time, too.

Of course, carrying out small items could be fairly easy. But so much of what’s in this collection would require a well organized team of professionals several days to make off with a small percentage of the medium size items. The bigger pieces would have taken more time, manpower, and machinary.

I don’t know the size Baghdad museum, only that its collection held 170,000 artifacts, which sounds pretty large. If its even 1/4 of the physical size of the Met — and Saddam never did anything small — it would be exhausting just getting from the galleries to the front doors carrying a small item or two.

It’s one thing to spontaneously carry away chairs from the ministry of information; But to loot a world class collection like the Baghdad Museum over 2 days simply defies the imagination.

Do the Math:
48 hours contains 172800 seconds. There were ostensibly 170,000 items in the collection. That breaks down to about one item leaving the baghdad museum EVERY SECOND during the entire period in question.One per second. Regardless of the size of each piece, that seems extraordinairy; Its an astonishing feat for that amount of material to be moved in just 48 hours.

I find the official tale of what happened wanting; We may never know what actually occurred for many years. One thing is for certain: When large and delicate items show up in the public art market private decades from now, it will be apparent whether or not these artifacts were carefully crated before they were moved.Only then will the truth be fully known.

April 19, 2003, 8:48am EST

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