Recently at the AIC annual meeting in Los Angeles, I had the chance to talk more in depth with Terry Drayman-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, MD), about an initiative that she has of late been promoting – the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project (ICHP). Developed under the aegis of the International Relief and Development (IRD) through a grant from the United States Department of State, ICHP is a multi-faceted initiative designed to focus US and international resources and expertise on rebuilding the professional capabilities of Iraq's museum, heritage and archaeology organizations, as well as supporting antiquities preservation and management. IRD is a charitable, non-profit, non-governmental organization that directs assistance in regions of the world that present social, political and technical challenges.
A tangible result of this project will be the creation of the National Training Institute for the Preservation of Iraqi Cultural Heritage in Erbil, Iraq, housing two training programs: a Collections Conservation and Management program, and a Sites, Monuments, and Buildings Preservation program. Cultural partners, including the University of Delaware, Winterthur, the Walters Art Museum, the US National Park Service, and other institutions were selected by the US Department of State to work in consultation with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to develop the programs to meet the short- and long-term preservation needs of Iraqi collections and cultural institutions. Beyond serving the preservation and training needs within Iraq, ICHP will also assist with the re-establishment and expansion of the professional environment within the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad; as well as identify and facilitate opportunities for professional development and capacity building of Iraq's museum and heritage staff. Recently, Jessica S. Johnson, formerly Senior Objects Conservator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, has accepted the position as program director for the Collections Conservation and Management program.
What in my mind is one of the more interesting aspects of this project is that the program is meant to transcend religious and ethnic divides, aiding reconciliation by emphasizing the nation's rich heritage. In order to understand how ICHP intends to do this requires at least a basic understanding of the profound tensions that have existed and remain present in Iraq.
Within the Islamic world, religious practice is divided mainly between two major denominations of Islam – Sunni and Shi’a, with their essential difference being grounded on the legitimacy of the Caliphs as successors to Muhammed.While Sunni sects represent almost 90% of Islam’s adherents worldwide and 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim, Sunni Muslims are nonetheless a minority group in Iraq - representing only between 32 to 37% of the population. Even more of a minority are Sunni Arab Muslims, who represent only approximately 12 to 15% of the overall population. While a minority group within the religious population, a Sunni Arab controlled state has existed in the area of present-day Iraq since as early as mid-16th century under the Ottoman Empire, acting as a buffer against the influence of a Shi’a Safavid Empire in Iran. This dominance continued after the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the first half of the 20th century under both British rule and the subsequent British-backed Iraqi monarchy, with Sunni Arab Muslims experiencing political and socioeconomic prominence. Under Saddam Hussein and the Iraq-based secular Ba’ath party, Sunni Arab Muslims prospered while Shi’a clergy and Muslims experienced severe repression and marginalization.
Notice before that I made the distinction of Sunni Arab Muslims, which leads into the other major source of tension – ethnic disparity. Beyond religious identity, ethnic identity has functioned as a source for either social unity or discord. The Iraqi population can be described as an Arab majority and a number of smaller minorities, the largest of which are the Kurds. Kurds are ethnically related to ancient Persian cultures (Hurrian and Medes). Some 70% of Kurdish population is Sunni Muslim (even this is misleading as the majority follow a different school from the Arab population), representing between 18 to 20% of the country’s population. During the early part of the 20th century, the ideology of a pan-Arabism, arguing that Arab culture and the history of the Arabs transcended religious and communal ties, became popular in Iraq. This came at the exclusion of non-Arab minorities, such as the Kurds, who had their own nationalistic aspirations. Under Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish population experienced massive repression by his Sunni Arab-oriented government in the name of national unity, including genocidal campaigns and human rights violations.
Now if you are not yet confused, place these ethnic and religious divides into a geographical context. Southern Iraq is predominately comprised of a Shi’a population while the Sunni Arabs are wedged in the center of the country from Baghdad north to the southern portions of Kirkuk and Mosul. Civilian violence in Iraq is centered mainly in central and southern Iraq and can be described as both religiously exclusive (Shi’a-on-Shi’a or Sunni-on-Sunni) and sectarian (Sunni-to-Shi’a or vice versa). Northern Iraq is inhabited mainly by (but not exclusively) a Kurdish population and has undergone peace and development since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Putting all this information into context, the new Institute will be situated in Eril. The city of Erbil (or Arbil) is located in Northern Iraq and also happens to be the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Beyond the immediate relative security and stability that this location will provide to the program and its students, the reality is that students will have to struggle with and rise above the inherent tensions already described for a greater goal - protecting and preserving Iraq’s cultural heritage. With the training, these Iraqi students will become the new faces of Iraq’s emerging conservation professionals, collaborating with museums and sites within the country to promote national unity around the preservation of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage as well as engaging the wider international professional community.
As interesting as all this might have been to read, you may ask why am I posting this description in the ECPN blog? As emerging conservation professionals, we have the opportunity to collaborate with and support this initiative in a small but substantial measure. One aspect of the institute’s development is the creation of an on-site conservation library at the institute that will remain a resource to the Iraqi conservation students long after the project’s reins are turned over to its Iraqi partners. At the annual meeting, Terry made a call to conservation professionals to consider donating a book to this library in support of the project and these future conservation professionals. After having the chance to talk to Terry, and afterwards to Jessica Johnson and Vicki Cassman (who is helping to coordinate the library development from the University of Delaware), I believe more and more that this is a real opportunity for emerging conservators here in the US to help emerging professionals across borders (think of it as promoting cultural connections and ties with people of Iraq). While many of us have extremely limited incomes, it has been my experience that we often put something extra aside or make exceptions for buying books and adding to our own libraries. Wouldn’t it be great that when we buy ourselves that book that we also consider buying one for this project as well? It may sound a bit hackneyed but think of the old adage “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for one day; teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” For me, that’s seems to be the effect that a donation of a book can have for this institution.
In the near future, AIC will be publishing on its website an article about the project as well as a link to the books that are still needed for the library’s completion. I strongly encourage you to keep an eye out to learn more information about the project and consider donating. If you would like to make a more immediate donation or just have more questions about the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, please feel free to contact Jessica for more information at: firstname.lastname@example.org.