BM trains Iraqi heritage experts

Rob Sharp, Issue 116/06, p9, 01.06.2016
A government-backed scheme is attempting to protect cultural sites from the damage caused by war
The British Museum (BM) is training six Iraqi heritage professionals who are in London, thanks to government funding for supporting heritage in conflict zones.

The £3m project will involve 50 Iraqi heritage professionals being trained in a range of techniques that will help them work in severely damaged or disrupted areas.

Jonathan Tubb, the keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, says: “It seemed that the most valuable thing we can do is to ensure the Iraq State Board of Antiquities & Heritage is armed with all the tools it will need to cope with severely disrupted and damaged sites.”

The first group of Iraqis arrived in London in April and are being trained at the BM in techniques including global positioning systems, satellite imagery and geophysics. They will also be introduced to the work of conservation organisations such as Historic England and the World Monuments Fund.

In the autumn, the Iraqi professionals will work on excavation training in Qalatga Darband, in Kurdistan, and Tello, in southern Iraq, with archaeologists hired by the British Museum for the project.

The heritage professionals will be trained to use digital and 3D mapping tools, as well as surveying equipment, which will be left with them at the end of the scheme.
“They’ll put into practice what they’ve learned theoretically,” says Tubb. “Everything is geared towards the recording of the damage on sites, with a view to using that information for potential reconstruction.”

The project is financed by the Cultural Protection Fund, launched by the government in November to support cultural heritage in conflict zones.

The British Council is in charge of managing the fund after a public consultation finished in February, according to Stephen Stenning, the director of culture and development at the British Council. He says he expects museums to apply, “mainly from the UK, with partners and collaborators in the targeted countries”.

“One of the three outcome areas for the fund is advocacy and education, and there is that connection with the destruction of cultural property which comes from people valuing it in the first place,” adds Stenning.

Migrant workshops

Meanwhile, Noorah Al-Gailani, the curator of Islamic civilisations at Glasgow Museums, has held a series of workshops with migrants from the Middle East, using artefacts from the Burrell Collection, which holds antiquities collected in the early 20th century. They include artefacts from areas of Iraq damaged in recent conflicts, such as the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

“The destruction that’s happened has made them more aware of the importance of knowing more about their heritage. They were totally ignorant of its presence in their local museums,” says Al-Gailani.

As Museums Journal went to press it was announced in the 2016 Queen’s Speech that the UK is to ratify the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict.

Noorah Al-Gailani and Stephen Stenning will be speaking about looting, destruction and the illegal trafficking of artefacts at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Glasgow, on 7-9 November.