Juan Cole, one of the most astute commentators on Middle East issues, has posted some photos from the Iraq Museum. These are indeed breathtaking artifacts, and it is good to see them well-displayed, in galleries that the State Department together with others helped restore. But while Cole notes that "The damage to the museum and its collection is yet another black mark against the Bush administration and, sorry, the United States of America, which by its illegal and brutal invasion and occupation diminished our store of knowledge about a crucial period of world history", he seems unaware that the museum he is visiting in its present form reflects in part the way in which the US chose to respond to the looting of Iraq's archaeological heritage. While the US plowed financial resources into training curators, fixing the museum (which, according to news reports, still is only half-open), and developing Babylon as a World Heritage tourist destination, it all but ignored the looting of thousands of archaeological sites over years during the occupation. Iraq's antiquities police were disbanded and very little done to fill that security gap, or even to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Estimates of the number of artifacts taken from those sites dwarf the number lost in the looting of the museum -- and of course, artifacts dug up by tomb robbers lose forever the context we need in order to fully understand what they can tell us about our past. Now we read that the Iraqi government is planning to build a brand new museum.
The beauty of these galleries should not distract us from asking whether what we are seeing is a Potemkin Village.