Walters is on team to save Iraqi art

November 30, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,

For decades, ancient Iraqi ivory and other art has languished in Iraq's poorly kept storage facilities, gathering mold.

But a new initiative funded by the federal government aims to restore Iraq's antique and contemporary art stores and establish a state-of-the-art museum there.

Through the program, called the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, the Walters Art Museum is teaming up with the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate and the University of Delaware to train Iraqi professionals in conservation of that country's cultural heritage. Next April, several conservators from these institutions could travel to Erbil in northern Iraq to help establish a new Conservation and Historic Preservation Institute.

"We're working together as a team, with the best of the ideas coming to the top and producing what we hope will become a very successful program," said Terry Draymen-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters.

The collaborative effort will be funded through a roughly $13 million grant the State Department gave to International Relief and Development, a nongovernmental organization.

U.S. experts will train Iraqis to preserve their collections by controlling humidity, pollution and light levels. The Iraqis will also learn how to protect their artifacts from floods, fires and other disasters, and the safest ways to move collections from one location to another.

"These are the kinds of things we do on a daily basis in the conservation lab at the Walters," Draymen-Weisser said. "I personally have a very strong sense of concern about the artifacts themselves. ... It's a sense of responsibilities beyond the walls of our museum."

Iraq holds a sizable amount of sculptures, gold and ivory carvings dating to 8000 B.C. to 9000 B.C. But for most of the past 30 years, these pieces sat dormant, out of public view. There is also a large body of contemporary Iraqi art from the past 50 years that is just now being rediscovered.

In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, looters stole and damaged roughly 15,000 of the collection's estimated 500,000 pieces. Some of these artifacts have since been recovered. The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad is currently closed but could reopen as the project advances.

A version of the project was attempted in 2006, when Iraqis came to the Walters to study methods of preserving ivory. Because of security concerns, the initiative was kept secret at the time, Draymen-Weisser said. The Iraqis were only here for several weeks, because passport issues made it hard for them to stay for extended periods. It makes more sense for American officials to go there.

The Walters' conservation department is the third-oldest in the nation, employing nine conservators and one scientist. It has trained more than 125 conservators through internships and fellowships.

None of the pieces will be removed from Iraq during the conservator-training process. Eventually, officials hope to establish a modernized museum that can exchange art and officials with other museums around the world.

"It is extremely exciting for me," Draymen-Weisser said. "The satisfaction of doing something that is a good thing, not just for the Walters but globally ... makes you want to get up in the morning."

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