After more than a decade, Iraq's national treasures go back on display

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Marco Werman: Just a few days ago, an ISIS video showed the extremists destroying ancient artifacts in the Iraqi city of Mosul. We told you about that last week on The World. Today, for a change, we have some good news about art in Iraq--the National Museum in Baghdad is now open, the first time in 12 years. This is the same museum that was famously shut down during the US-led invasion of Iraq. Tamer El-Ghobashy has visited the Baghdad museum. He’s Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Did they re-inaugurate this museum with a special exhibit or was it just exciting enough that it re-opened?

 

Tamer El-Ghobashy: Well, it initially was re-inaugurated. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony, which was attended by some of Iraq’s top antiquities officials and the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was there to officially inaugurate it on saturday. Yesterday on sunday, they officially opened it to the public. Sunday here is the start of the work and school week, so sadly there wasn’t a huge crush of people that were trying to get to the museum that day, but we did run into a handful of people that had come--a lot of women who spend their day looking after their children brought their kids to the museum, some students we ran into came after their lectures were done at the nearby university, and other students actually cut class and skipped lectures in order to come and check out exhibits at the museum. But my understanding was that there was no special exhibit that was on display as much as it was just a reintroduction of some of the artifacts that date back 3,000 years or so. The museum was renovated, it was in very nice condition, the floors were waxed and you could tell that they were really trying to lift the spirits of people living here in Iraq.

 

Werman: What are some of the objects on display now that they’ve reopened the museum? What’s the Mona Lisa of Baghdad’s museum?

 

El-Ghobashy: One thing we should keep in mind is that, as you know, we all saw the images and remember the reports shortly after the American invasion in 2003 that the museum was one of the first places that was targeted by looters. According to museum officials, some 15,000 artifacts were stolen at the time. Over the years, they’ve been able to recover a little more than 4,000 of those stolen artifacts and they continue efforts to recover a lot of those things. But to give you an idea of what’s on display, I don’t know if there’s a centerpiece, kind of the Mona Lisa of the museum, but just walking around yesterday, you have everything from these massive marble doorways to ancient mausoleums that are historically significant in Iraq and from all over the country, Mosul and other places. You have glass-encased displays with coins dating back to the Assyrian period. For me, being someone who is not from Iraq, it was fascinating to walk through the hallways and look at the artifacts.

 

Werman: So the Museum has reopened and a couple of weeks ago the curfew was lifted in Baghdad. When you spoke with visitors at the museum, are they feeling like things are slowly returning to normal with all these little baby steps?

 

El-Ghobashy: One thing that’s remarkable, spending some time in Baghdad among the Iraqis here, is that even when there was a curfew, even when the car bombings were far more frequent and hit a larger section of the city, there was still a sense that life goes on. But there is now for sure, with the lifting of the curfew, with things like the reopening of the museum, recently Baghdatis for the first time in a long, long time were able to access the internet from their smartphones--3G has been introduced after the new year, so there is a sense that they are, despite the troubles the country is going through, people are starting to feel like they can continue to carry on.

 

Werman: Tamer El-Ghobashy. He’s the Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal speaking with me from Baghdad. Thank you Tamer.

 

El-Ghobashy: My pleasure. Thank you.