The Retrieval of Kuwait National Museums Collections from Iraq

The Retrieval of Kuwait National Museums Collections from Iraq
Kirsty Norman 

What follows is an excerpt from an article by Kirsty Norman published in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC, Volume 39, Number 1, Article 11). It is a first-person account of the capture and return of The al-Sabah Collection during and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In 1990, at the time of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the Kuwait National Museum housed two collections: the national archaeological and ethnographic museum and the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, otherwise known as The al-Sabah Collection of Islamic art. The two collections functioned quite separately, each with its own staff and in separate buildings.

In 1988, I had been invited to go to Kuwait to work as the conservator for Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, the arrangement being that I would spend three to four months of the year there, set up a laboratory, and manage the conservation of the collection. There had been no conservation input into the collection in Kuwait until then, and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, housing some 3,000 objects, had been open since 1983.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, amassed from all over the Islamic world and spanning the 8th–18th centuries, is owned by a couple who are both members of Kuwait’s ruling family, Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, and it had been put on long loan to the state so that it could be exhibited. Both felt that, with most of the great collections of Islamic art housed in museums in the West, it was time that one be on view in the Arab world. The collection at that time was rated among the top six Islamic art collections on public display anywhere in the world. Sheikha Hussah was, and still is, the director of the museum.

I was in Kuwait in July and August 1990 to oversee the packing of a traveling exhibition that was being sent to Russia and on around the world, and was made up of 114 of the most important objects from the collection. [This exhibition, Islamic Arts and Patronage, wound up traveling for 14 years and is the subject of the book Art in Exile.]

Although it seems strange in retrospect, in July 1990 most people in Kuwait refused to see an invasion as a possibility. Saddam Hussein’s regime had postured and threatened before, and the disagreements of that summer over oil rights and prices were certainly not expected to result in war. At the end of July 1990, therefore, with tens of thousands of Iraqi troops gathering on the border, there was no alarm. Many of the country’s decision makers were out of the country for the duration of the hot summer months.

The invasion took place in the early hours of August 2 and, apart from fighting in the north of the city on the first day, was strangely quiet. It later became apparent that it was also carefully planned in many respects. On the first day, guards were posted on all institutions that the Iraqi government wanted to reserve for its own uses, to prevent looting. One of these was the National Museum. As the invasion occurred in the early hours, by the time we were awake on August 2 it was already too late to rescue anything from the museum. One of the Kuwaiti staff of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah went to the museum a few days later, posing as an interested student, and was asked if she knew where any of the keys were, so at least it was clear that the Iraqis had not yet forced an entrance.

In September, six weeks after the invasion, there was news that trucks had been seen outside the museum, and it was speculated that the collections were being moved north to Iraq. This proved to be the case. In the intervening five months before the liberation of the country, nothing reliable was heard about the collection’s whereabouts.

I had been due to fly out of Kuwait on what proved to be the day of the invasion, and finally got out a month later, when the Iraqi government permitted Western women and children to leave the country. The collection traveling to Russia had also left the country—just in time—and went on to several venues in the United States during 1990–91, with the unexpected role of being an ambassador for the cause of Kuwait.

The condition of the collections before the invasion

At the time of the invasion, approximately 900 objects were on display and 2,000 were in storage in the museum. There was also a library of books, modern and antiquarian, on Islamic art and the Islamic world. The collection and library were housed in a large modern building designed to lead the visitor through 10 interconnecting galleries around a spectacular central atrium in which hung the largest carpets. The objects were presented by period, from pre-Islamic through to Mughal India. The building was spacious and the display attractive. However, there had been little or no conservation input into the original design of the storage or display, and when I arrived, a survey of these aspects was one of the first priorities.

Generally, the objects themselves were in good condition. Most had been bought at auction in London and, as is often the case, had been restored beforehand. The museum had an office in London and any conservation or restoration of objects needed after acquisition had, until my arrival, been contracted out to various conservators in Britain. Objects not covered by my training as an archaeological conservator, such as manuscripts or rugs, continued to be treated in London, but I was, of course, responsible for maintaining them in the best possible conditions while they were in Kuwait.

The problems lay mainly in the fact that some of these objects, once in good condition, were in danger of deteriorating due to poor display, storage, or handling.

Storage was redesigned, particularly for some of the more vulnerable objects, namely the wood, textiles, and carpets. Because of the lack of relative humidity control or dust filtration in the museum, all wooden objects were lightly cleaned and packed in acid-free tissue and loosely sealed polythene. All fragile wooden objects, such as a large collection of long architectural panels from Mughal India, were packed on carrying boards or trays made to size.

Textiles and carpets that had been lying uncovered on the store floor were rolled and racked, with thick calico protective covers. A large collection of medieval textile fragments from Fustat had already been mounted at the Metropolitan Museum in Perspex cases, all with their own slipcovers.

Because of this work on the stores, and because so many of the carpets that should have been on display happened to be on rollers in storage, most of the textile and wood objects were to travel relatively well. The objects that were to suffer worst were some of those that were on display and then were difficult to pack well.

The National Museum

The National Museum did not have trained conservators on staff, so less of this work was done. However, the collection proved to be less fragile. Much of it was made up of archaeological material, mainly pottery sherds and very small objects, which were not especially fragile. There was also a very large amount of quite modern ethnographic material, which on the whole was fairly sound and sturdy.

Documentation of the collections before the invasion
Before the war, neither Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah nor the National Museum had computerized its documentation of the collections. This situation was to have profound implications for the recovery program, particularly in the case of the National Museum.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah’s main archives of documents and photographs were in Kuwait, but there was a secondary archive in London. It would be good to be able to say that this arrangement was a result of efficient disaster planning, but in fact it was circumstance. Much of the collection having been bought in the auction houses of Europe, the financial paperwork was done in the collection’s London office.

Objects also were photographed professionally in London before being dispatched to Kuwait. Other information was gathered for the inventory by contacting everyone who had worked with the collection (curators, academics, volunteers, staff, auction rooms, and so on) to ask for any extra details or photographs. As a result, an inventory with photographs could be produced by the London office.

By Christmas 1990 the inventory had been put together, with as many photographs as possible, to give to Interpol and the United Nations. It was, however, quite rudimentary, not absolutely complete even though the collection comprised only 3,000 objects, and it had cost a great deal of effort. The need for efficient computerization in the future became very apparent.

Kuwait National Museum’s archives were all in the museum, teaching us one of the most painful lessons learned in the invasion. Because the National Museum had no records outside Kuwait, or indeed at another site inside Kuwait, it could not assemble an inventory for Interpol or as a basis for the recovery operation in Baghdad.

The removal of the collections to Iraq

The disappearance of the National Museum and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collections was not, on the whole, the result of random looting, and this situation was to be one of the most significant factors in their recovery. When they were ready to do so, the Iraqis sent staff from their Department of Antiquities to assess and pack what they wanted from the two collections. They took the whole of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and approximately 60–70% of the National Museum collection, leaving behind much of the larger modern ethnographic material. It transpired later that the Iraqis involved had been working under a deadline imposed by the army and did not have time to take everything. They were methodical enough, however, to take all documentation for both collections.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah numbered some 3,000 objects of varied media and an Islamic art and history library of some 3,000 books. The National Museum was more difficult to quantify. At the time of the recovery operation the director estimated the material in Iraq at about 26,000 objects. In the end there proved to be more than 40,000. The National Museum Library numbered approximately 15,000–20,000 books.

Preparation for the recovery operation

The liberation of Kuwait took place in February 1991, seven months after the invasion. The return of the collections occurred in September–October 1991, after the UN’s establishment of a presence in Iraq. It was thanks to the work of the UN that the collections were traced, and it was the UN that established the understanding with Iraq that the collections would be returned. This arrangement was part of a much larger restitution program, to include gold bullion taken from the central bank, the National Archives, the two museum collections, civil aviation, and major equipment, in that order. The UN formed an agency for this purpose, called UN Return of Property (UNROP), and the staff of the two collections was asked to form teams to go to Iraq for the handover. The two teams agreed to employ the same professional packers to provide materials and travel to Baghdad, and this aspect was to be organized by the head of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah team.

The UN then arranged permission for two members of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah team to go to Baghdad ahead of the handover to assess how much of the two collections was there and therefore how much packing material would be needed. There were real fears as to what they would find: newspapers by now had been reporting that jeweled Mughal daggers and illuminated Qur’ans from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah had been given by Saddam to his generals as rewards for their part in the war. It seemed a miracle that anything had been found at all.

The news was good. The sheer bulk of material that the staff found in the galleries of the Iraq museum, although mostly still packed and therefore hard to examine, was encouraging. This visit was one of the most important factors in the subsequent smooth running of the recovery operation. Although in the end the team members were allowed only three hours to make their assessment, in that time all the largest objects were measured for crates, the volume of the library books (found stacked in heaps on the floor) was calculated roughly by measurement, and the number of trunks and boxes of objects was counted. From these figures, it was possible to make an estimate, albeit very rough, of the amounts of packing materials needed.

After the brief visit to Baghdad to assess how much of the collections was there, plans were made by the company of professional art shippers appointed to accompany us to Baghdad, in consultation with Katie Marsh, the head of the recovery team, and me. Seven tons of packing materials were flown to Kuwait, including the numerous crates made to size for the largest objects. A large margin of safety was added in calculating the loose packing materials (tissue, corrugated paper, cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, etc.), in case of error. Almost all of it was used, in fact, because the National Museum collection proved to be much larger than had been indicated. Other supplies taken were trolleys, lifting gear, industrial stacking trays, stationery, first aid kit, even large supplies of coffee and a coffee maker.


The return of the collections from Baghdad

By now it was early summer. The two teams were given a rough time frame for the mission and asked to be on standby to go sometime in the autumn. The UN could not foretell how quickly the first recovery operations (gold bullion and the National Archives) would be finished, and therefore we would simply have to go when they were completed.

In the end, the whole operation was carried out by the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah team, as the National Museum team was withdrawn shortly before departure. They were all Kuwaitis, and politically it was deemed to be too sensitive to send Kuwaitis into Iraq so soon after the war. We therefore found ourselves going to Baghdad to check and receive a second collection with which we were not familiar, and for which we had no inventory. This situation had mixed consequences, which will be mentioned later.

The Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah team was made up of an administrator (as head of delegation), two curators, a conservator (myself), an objects photographer, and four professional packers from an art shipping company used regularly by Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah. The members were all British or American. There was no political reason for the nationalities of the team: these people were chosen only because they had had the most experience in working with the collection.

Back in Kuwait, two other members of staff handled the shipments of objects as they were gradually shuttled down in the UN cargo plane. The National Museum had prepared storage space for both the collections in one of its buildings that had not been damaged during the occupation.

The handover process

The handover process was carried out in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the collections having been brought there from wherever they had been stored during the occupation of Kuwait—possibly near Mosul in the north of Iraq. It was organized and run by the UNROP staff, who oversaw the unpacking of all the material by the Iraqi delegation and the handover to the Kuwait delegation, item by item. The three teams sat at a horseshoe formation of tables, with the UN team between the other two. Each item had to be identified and its condition noted for the computer records made by the UNROP staff, which became the formal handover documents signed by the three heads of delegation. There would be a break for the signing of handover documents every few hours. Objects could then be photographed and packed.
A large room in the museum had been designated “Kuwaiti territory” (a curious concept, after the events of the last year), and no Iraqis were allowed in this room. Once objects were handed over officially to the Kuwait delegation, they went first to the photographer and then into this room, where the packers worked. This room was also the one place in the museum where the rather charged atmosphere of the handover was absent, and it was therefore a welcome haven.

Crates were flown down to Kuwait in batches of 2–7 tons at a time, when space was available on the UN cargo plane. The UN plane was not permitted to fly from the airport in Baghdad, and so shipments had to be taken out to Habaniyah air base, two to three hours outside Baghdad.

The handover took 6 weeks, working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. The UN had wanted it done in a shorter time because of fears that the political situation would deteriorate, but that was not physically possible. Fortunately the fears were not confirmed, at least not to the degree that the recovery operation was halted. The total amount reclaimed was some 50,000 objects and 20,000 books, forming 50 tons of cargo weight.

The political situation

From the time of our arrival we were warned by the UN that it might not be safe for us to go out on the streets of Baghdad without an armed escort. Thus, at the beginning at least, we were confined to the hotel for the few free hours when we were not either working or sleeping. This situation became quite oppressive. We were also warned that our rooms were bugged and that therefore we should take care in discussing the operation there. Partway into the operation, some of us decided to risk the streets and venture out occasionally in the evenings. To our surprise and pleasure, we found that we were treated very hospitably, but we feared the hospitable attitude would cease.

Although the general populace was mainly friendly, the government was intent on raising tensions. The UN staff did not tell us until the worst was over, but at one stage they had begun to fear that there would be government-instigated riots aimed against the UN’s activities in Iraq. They had begun moving supplies and a shortwave radio into the museum in case we had to barricade ourselves in the building rather than returning to the hotel, which would be an obvious target. Fortunately, the riots did not materialize. One of the UN vehicles had abusive graffiti spray-painted on it, but we saw no other direct hostility outside the museum.

Identifying the objects

The greatest problem to face us during the recovery operation, however, was simply identifying objects. The archaeological collections were the worst culprits. Hundreds of objects or boxes of objects had no numbers, or by now had meaningless labels or only their excavation numbers. These numbers are unique to each excavation and were almost impossible to use for handover purposes. All should have been registered as museum objects using the museum numbering system, but this procedure had often not been followed.

There was another complication in the business of identifying objects. When the collections had first arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqis had made their own inventory. Many of the objects in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection had previously belonged to other collections, and it is the museum’s policy to keep the old numbers or identifying marks of these collections alongside ours. Not knowing the numbering systems of the Kuwaiti collections, the Iraqis had recorded numbers at random: sometimes ours, sometimes old ones.

Also, the staff compiling the inventory had little experience with Islamic objects, and these were frequently misidentified. The Iraq Museum staff involved in the handover was required to use this inventory, which they themselves had apparently not seen before. A translation from Arabic to English, made for our team by the UN, we suspected, had, through no fault of the UN, made things yet more obscure. The confusion was spectacular at times, and required much patience and good humor on both sides to untangle, as the Iraqis had to match every item on their almost incomprehensible inventory to one of our objects.

Even when the National Museum’s ledgers and card catalogs were found in Baghdad, the system was so cumbersome, complicated, and incomplete that it was almost unusable in the very short time available. We used it as far as we could, but in the end we could only collect and thoroughly record what the Iraqis handed over. Ideally it should have been possible to assess losses and ask for missing objects while in Baghdad, but these steps had to wait until the collection was back in Kuwait and could be checked fully by its own staff.

Postrecovery analysis: losses to the collections

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah had all but 61 objects back, but its building was rendered unusable, having been torched by the Iraqi army during the retreat from Kuwait. The losses fall into two categories. Whereas the collections in the museum were taken and put in “safekeeping” by the state of Iraq, the royal residences had, it seems, been allocated to the Republican Guard as booty, and most of the museum items lost from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah’s collection were taken from Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussah’s home.

The main loss from inside the museum was the pair of 14th-century Moroccan wooden doors, 3.5 m tall. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities staff had been unable to move them, and they were burned with the museum several months later. The metal fittings were found in the ashes. The doors were among the collection’s great pieces. Although losses from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah were relatively few, they were quite serious.

A large proportion of the objects that were to suffer the most dramatic damage were those on display, which had no ready-made packaging or supports. Large stone and stucco objects fared particularly badly. The Iraqis were able to pack smaller objects with paper in tin trunks, but larger objects received little or no protection. The one large rug still out on display, a 17th-century medallion Ushak carpet, was rolled on itself, folded twice, and then trussed tightly with rope for the trip to Iraq in an open truck.

None of the museum objects lost from the residence, which varied from carpets to carved Mughal emeralds, were to be found among the material in Baghdad. Having been taken by the Republican Guard, they were dispersed privately. Only one object, a dagger, has subsequently been recovered. It appeared on the market in Beirut.

The National Museum has not at the time of writing produced exact figures, but estimates that it has lost 20–30% of its collection. One of its three buildings and its planetarium were also burned out. It would seem very likely that most of the losses resulted, strangely, from the fact that the Iraqis did not take all of the collection away, so that large quantities of the more modern ethnographic material were left behind. It seems that this material may have been randomly looted. It is also possible that archaeological material went astray in Iraq. The Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection seemed to be of less interest to the staff sent to get the collections, who were mainly archaeologists. The main damage to the National Museum collection was to large archaeological ceramics, which did not travel well.

Less immediately identifiable was the inevitable deterioration inflicted on vulnerable materials such as textiles and manuscripts by the intense heat during the moves from Kuwait to Baghdad, and to Mosul and back again. It seems that the collection traveled by open trucks, and temperatures in the sun in September are likely to have reached at least 50°C. The temperature inside the tin trunks used to transport many of the smaller objects may have reached 80°C. Resin and adhesive restorations that had sagged in transit attested to the heat. Serious damage (i.e., either irreparable or necessitating major restoration work) to both of the collections, however, averaged less than 10%.


The state of the collections postrecovery

The National Museum collection is back in its home, though not all of the galleries have reopened. The Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection has been put in semistorage until a new museum is opened. A large modern house has been converted, and having all objects boxed or crated in Baghdad by their media has facilitated the storage of the collection by media. Humidifiers or dehumidifiers have been installed where appropriate, and a well-equipped conservation laboratory has been set up.

All Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah objects needing urgent attention were treated within a year of the return, though many more remain to be restored. Interpol has details of all objects lost from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, and a fully documented claim against Iraq has been submitted to the UN.

After the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the objects in Kuwait were kept in makeshift storage back at the house. The museum and storage space associated with it were destroyed and the pieces not touring in the Art and Patronage exhibition or on loan to other museums were again available only to friends and family. In 2000, with the establishment of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre, the objects once again had a purpose-built, dedicated storage site.

This dovetailed with a renewal of the agreement between the collection and the State of Kuwait for exhibition of collection objects in the rehabilitated Kuwait National Museum. The agreement was reached based on the terms outlined in the original 1983 agreement. Today, there is one significant difference though, the museum complex has been renamed the Qibla Cutural District.

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