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‘Theft of cultural heritage opens up a deep wound that can often only be healed through repatriation of the heritage to its country of origin.’ (Lenzerini, 2016).

Photo by Freysteinn G. Jonsson (2022) on Unsplash.

We don’t just measure the impact of conflict in lives lost. The destruction of heritage during war – whether collateral damage or deliberate – seems to have an impact that is far beyond what we might initially expect. For a state or country at war, the destruction of heritage sites and places of cultural significance is, as stated by the 1954 Hague convention, a war crime (UNESCO, 1954). Setting the emotional and psychological effects of this aside, the destruction, loss and displacement of heritage also brings up issues of protection, ownership and the relationship between the piece of heritage and its geographical location.


 ‘A Museum in Baghdad’, a play by Hannah Khalil, performed at the RSC in 2019, begins to unpick this set of dilemmas through the story of Gertrude Bell and Ghalia Hussein, two archaeologists twenty years apart (Bell in the 1920s and Hussein after the famed 2003 looting), both trying to preserve the treasures within the city’s first national museum (RSC, 2019). Much of the play focuses on the consequences of artefacts staying in situ and the theft and destruction that can occur, versus removing them and risking a different kind of loss. Two days after the Iraq Museum was looted, an amnesty began to try and retrieve pieces that were still in its vicinity. An article in The Independent reported: ‘The word was put out to immams, newspapers and television, and on the street that anyone returning an item would be asked only one question: "Would you like a cup of tea?’… ‘[someone] was posted on the gate to solicit returns, and the team walked the streets, drank endless cups of tea in cafes, and played backgammon with anyone who looked as if they might know something.’ (Randal, 2005). Thousands of artefacts ‘taken for safekeeping’ by those in the locality were returned - including the priceless Sacred Vase of Warka – but gradually, it became apparent that others had been smuggled further afield. In 2021 the US returned 17,000 illegally smuggled artefacts - that had ended up in personal collections and museums after being confiscated at border control – to Iraq. So, is the line between illegal looting and the ‘rescuing’ of artefacts as strong as we think? The saga of returning objects ‘rescued’ by the west to countries such as Iraq still continues. Though, in reaction to recent history such as the events surrounding the Iraq Museum there is now, finally, some legislation to prevent the rescuer of artefacts from becoming the hostage taker. 


'Just over 2,000 recoveries were the result of raids, the biggest being at a farmhouse on 23 September. Under a foot and a half of dirt in the backyard was the Mask of Warka.' (Randall, 2005).


Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (2019), via Wikimedia Commons.

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