Museums, like libraries, are the treasure chests of humanity’s artistic, cultural, and historical heritage. Whereas libraries contain items of which there are copies, museums house things that are unique, things whose replicas are not worth a fraction of the original. Museums are the pride of a people’s heritage, but they also belong to all of us as cultural beings. More than any other institution, they remind us of whatever is best and worthy of preservation in humanity’s legacy.
It is therefore a matter of great shock and sadness to all of us that the magnificent treasure house in Baghdad was among the targets of a mob of unbridled looters who carried away thousands of precious relics of one of the most ancient and rich civilizations of the human family. To all but those who have lost their dear ones in the war, this collateral damage is most terrible indeed.
All through history, during the ravages of wars, intruding armies have plundered the populace, desecrated the shrines of the enemy, and vandalized institutions.
What makes this tragedy a first in history is that this destruction was not perpetrated by invading hordes, but by the people whose country was invaded. They pillaged their own national properties and looted their own treasures from the museum. While we may be justly enraged that this has happened as a result of the war initiated by the United States, it is important to recognize that this crime against civilization is not an aspect of any international or intercultural conflict, but a most heinous expression of mindless mob fury.
This year the Baghdad museum would have celebrated its seventieth anniversary, for it was established in 1923. The museum was the fruit of the labors of countless archaeologists, historians, and scholars from many countries of the world, including American. All of us grieve at this unimaginable loss to humanity’s heritage. We may hope that the priceless treasures are stacked away in various locales within the country, unbroken and safe, and that some day, at no matter what price, most of them will be bought back from the raiders of the lost archaeology, and reinstated in the museum.
April 14, 2003