Stolen Art & Cultural Destruction

As a working artist I read a lot of art-related news, and I recently came across some reports concerning two controversial exhibits of national treasures, one exhibit from Tibet and the other from Iraq. Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World is a traveling exhibition now showing at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The Gold of Nimrud: Treasures of Ancient Iraq will also be a traveling exhibit, purportedly to be launched in October 2005. The exhibits are controversial because they present artifacts from countries under military occupation—and the occupiers are the ones organizing the exhibits.

Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World has been the subject of controversy and protest since its inception. The exhibit is a collection of over 100 Tibetan, Nepalese, Mongolian, Indian, and Chinese sacred and ritual objects. What is being shown for the first time outside of Tibet are 300-year-old treasures from the Lahaska Potala Palace, a Tibetan Buddhist holy place that’s equivalent to the Vatican. Ritual objects of gold and silver encrusted with pearls, rubies, jade, and red coral, along with dazzling paintings of gods and demons, provide a glimpse of Tibet’s splendor.

The showing at the Rubin Museum was greeted by a coalition of the Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan Youth Congress, and the Tibetan Women’s Association, who made it quite plain that they were displeased with the handling of Tibet’s sacred art.

The groups charge that the museum is colluding with the Chinese government, which occupies Tibet militarily. Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said of the Rubin Museum, “They know they are participating in a propaganda exercise. They are allowing themselves to become a platform, part of the Chinese strategy.”

The protesters evidently struck a nerve because the Rubin Museum is not using the Chinese published exhibit catalog as part of their presentation. A Rubin curator met with protestors before the show’s opening in an attempt to defuse the demonstration, but as a spokesperson for the protest, Tethong angrily replied “If Russia had won the cold war and taken over your country, then took the Declaration of Independence on a worldwide tour, how would he feel?” It’s difficult to argue with that position.

In 1949 the Chinese invaded and militarily occupied Tibet, and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. At the time there were more than 6,000 monasteries and temples across the land. However, by the late 1970’s the Chinese communist government had succeeded in destroying all but eight monasteries. That Tibetan sacred art is “on loan” to American museums from the Chinese government, the very government that for fifty years has methodically crushed Tibetan culture, only serves to legitimize the military occupation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone not understanding the Tibetans who protest against the occupation of their country. It’s easy to sympathize with them when they criticize American museums for so sheepishly providing Beijing with legitimacy regarding its illegal occupation of Tibet. Obviously the Chinese government is exploiting Tibetan art for political gain.

But while it’s easy for Americans to condemn China’s occupation of Tibet and their manipulation of Tibetan art, it’s not so easy for some Americans to do the same when considering the national treasures of Iraq. The Gold of Nimrud: Treasures of Ancient Iraq, is an exhibit of 300 gold and ivory objects dating from Iraq’s 8th century. The antiquities will soon be traveling to Europe and the US. Excavated by archeologists in 1989 at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud, these 2,800 year old works represent the finest jewelery of the ancient world.

Just prior to the US “shock and awe” attack and invasion of Iraq in 2003, the staff of Iraq’s museums packed away their priceless collections and sequestered them in secure storage rooms—hoping to spare the artworks from US bombs. The Nimrud jewels had already been moved to the vaults of Baghdad’s central bank for safe keeping in 1990 due to the first war with the US.

When Bush began his “preemptive” war to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (remember that excuse?), bombs destroyed Iraqi water, sewage, and electricity plants. Aside from the human misery this caused, another result was that Baghdad’s central bank vaults were flooded with sewage-contaminated water, severely damaging the Nimrud jewels. While the gold objects survived the deluge, most of the ivory pieces suffered from fragmentation, disintegration and mold. Art experts and historians mounted a painstaking restoration of the damaged ivory artworks that managed to save a few of the priceless items.

As the Nimrud treasures where steeping in waste water, the rest of Iraq’s art museums were left totally unguarded by the American occupation army. A whirlwind of looting left every one of Iraq’s museums pillaged and nearly empty. Invaluable collections of antiquities from the dawn of civilization were shattered, turned to dust, or carted off to be sold on the black market, all under the noses of the American liberators.

In a clear propaganda ploy enacted to show the world how much the US cared for Iraqi culture, the Nimrud treasures were put on display in Baghdad on July 3rd, 2003. US occupation troops rushed the jewels from Baghdad’s central bank to the looted Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad where the chief US official in Iraq at the time, Paul Bremmer, could be photographed at the “exhibit” by the press. The showing lasted all of two hours before US troops moved the jewels back to the bank vaults. Many archaeologists were outraged that the publicity stunt had endangered the fragile ornaments. Professor Elizabeth Stone, a specialist in Iraqi archaeology at New York State University said, “I think it is an act of propaganda. It is to show that nothing really happened to the museum. No curator in the world would allow this sort of exhibition unless ordered to do so.”

The Nimrud Gold exhibit was supposedly arranged by a Danish firm, but seeing as how the preliminary agreement for the exhibit was made with Iraq’s so-called Minister of Culture, which at the time of the agreement was a position in an unelected government appointed by the US occupation forces, it’s not hard to see the US as the actual organizer of the exhibit.

The Minister of Culture is said to have “agreed” to the traveling exhibition because it will “represent a positive story to tell about Iraq.” The show will purportedly open in October 2005 at an undisclosed location in an unnamed European country. It will then travel to 11 other cities in Europe, the US, and reportedly Tokyo.

The highly secret itinerary of this traveling exhibit indicates the political problems faced by its organizers. The show was originally to open in Berlin, but those plans fell through. Now another unnamed venue is being considered for the inaugural exhibit, but no one is saying just where that might be. Rumors say the show will travel to Paris, Rome and London… but no one will say for sure. Allegedly the British Museum was approached as a venue, but “scheduling” problems made the display impossible. It has been said that the Royal Academy was also asked to host the show, but no details have been forthcoming.

Is this exhibit starting to sound like a political hot potato? Wait, it gets better. Rumor has it the exhibit will stop in New York and Washington, but as to which museums in those cities will present the exhibit, your guess is as good as mine. The exhibit will come to California, so they say, but not a soul will verify when or at what venue. It is said that money raised from fees and ticket sales will be channeled to Baghdad’s sacked National Museum, which is the greatest irony of all.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said of the war on Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.” Iraq’s museums shouldn’t have to pay for the enormous damages wrought upon them by having their national treasures paraded in the capitals of the countries that inflicted the destruction. It’s time for reparations… and it’s time for Iraqis to handle their own affairs.

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