The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, April 17, 2003  

What Are a Few Thousand Priceless Artifacts Between Friends?

Almost a month ago I wrote here about the risk of war on Iraq to that country's inestimable, and underappreciated, historic treasures ("Bombing the Cradle of Civilization: A Clueless Pentagon; An Irresponsible eBay"). At the time, many archaeologists were up in arms over the Pentagon's disregard for the implications of its military campaign on Iraq's museums and as yet not fully explored historic sites.

Alas, we see now their worst fears have come to pass, with disheartening reports of the unobstructed looting the Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities, the Iraqi National Library, Saddam Hussein's many residences (where, no doubt, he had hoarded valuable artifacts for his own pleasure), and other sites.

Not that anyone in Washington, outside the Smithsonian and the city's other great museums, cares very much, but this is nothing less than a cultural tragedy of the highest order -- and an entirely preventable one at that.

The loss of life from the U.S. operation, fortunately held to disturbing but not obscene numbers, is certainly of greater concern and obviously more regrettable, but we would be mistaken if we collectively shrugged our shoulders over this catastrophe.

There has been at least some fall-out in the nation's capital, but it matters little at this point. According to Paul Richard, writing in today's Washington Post ("Bush Panel Members Quit Over Looting"), Martin E. Sullivan, chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property has resigned and another committee member, Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, will resign from the committee over the same issue.

Said Sullivan, who has chaired the advisory committee since 1995:

"From a practical perspective my resignation is simply symbolic....The tragedy was foreseeable and preventable....The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction."

Vikan noted that Baghdad and its historical treasures have been ransacked in the past. "But it hasn't been this bad for 700 years," he added.

Meanwhile, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has written to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urging them to ensure that U.S. and British forces act to protect the collections held in the National Museum.

Moe's concern, according to the Post: "Officials at UNESCO estimate that about 150,000 items, with a total value in the billions of dollars, [already] have been taken. Losses include 4,000-year-old Sumerian gold jewelry, 5,000-year-old tablets with some of the world's earliest known writing, and thousands of other objects."

Despite this, Secretary Rumsfeld appears, at best, unfazed by the looting at the museum and the library. "Looting is an unfortunate thing....No one likes it. No one allows it [sic]. It happens, and it's unfortunate....The United States is concerned about the museum in Baghdad, and the president and the secretary of state and I have all talked about it, and we are in the process of offering rewards for people who will bring things back or to assist us in finding where those things might be."

Meanwhile, let's be on the look-out for a forceful statement from eBay Inc.'s president and chief executive officer, Meg Whitman, guaranteeing the online auction site will not tolerate trafficking in artifacts looted from Iraqi cultural repositories. Yeah, right.

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