REVIEW: Article

Investing in Iraq's Cultural Heritage

As Acting Public Affairs Officer in Erbil in 2016, I had the privilege of working with the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH), the only pan-Iraqi organization located in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. IICAH was originally established with U.S. Department of State funding, and it has since become a regional leader for training cultural heritage specialists. Also with State Department funding, the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Delaware work to train Iraqis in the skills needed to preserve, protect and recover cultural heritage in Iraq, namely “the stabilization, rescue and recovery” of Iraq’s cultural legacy. This mission takes on an even greater importance in times of crisis, when cultural heritage is under threat of annihilation, and IICAH’s role has never been more significant than now, as those it has trained are well placed to preserve and restore sites and artifacts damaged or de­stroyed by ISIS.  

What is cultural heritage really? There are generally considered to be two categories—tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage includes things such as structures, ruins, handicrafts and landscapes. Intangible heritage includes nonmaterial things such as arts that are communicated through oral traditions. In The Past Is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal writes that preserved objects also validate memories. While digital acquisition techniques can provide precise visual models of an object’s shape and appearance, it is the actuality of the object, as opposed to a reproduction, that draws people in and gives them a literal way of touching the past.

Iraq’s expansive cultural history dates back over 10,000 years and includes the Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s capital of Erbil that has been built up as a fortified settlement over 7,000 years of continuous inhabitation.  The opening of the Nasiriyah Museum, which is located near the ruins of the ancient city of Ur and houses many precious objects from the oldest civilizations of the region, marked an important step in celebrating and preserving Iraq’s cultural heritage. 

In February, UNESCO hosted the “International Coordination Conference on the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage in Liberated Areas of Iraq,” which was attended by Iraq’s Ministers of Culture and Education as part of a larger delegation of Iraqi government officials. The conference identified ways the international community can continue to support Iraq’s efforts to preserve its cultural heritage after the defeat of ISIS. Despite the monumental task ahead, many Iraqi experts in the field and senior Iraqi government officials are keen to facilitate cooperation. 

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil have continued to be actively involved in implementing IICAH’s educational and technical training programs. In addition to the establishing grant, since 2009 the State Department has contributed $3.3 million in funding to support preservation training programs at IICAH, and a range of non-U.S. government donors have contributed an additional $3.5 million.

But support for IICAH is not the only way the State Department is supporting the preservation of cultural heritage in Iraq. In Fiscal Year 2017, the State Department is sending six archeologists from Iraqi universities on a specialized project as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program to strengthen ties with their American counter-parts. Through this program, U.S. colleges and universities collaborate with scholars from other countries to build con­crete bridges between U.S. and foreign academic communities, yielding improved collabora­tion and research. 

Iraq Cultural Heritage Project

A third way that the State Department has invested in Iraq’s cultural heritage is through a multi-tiered project developed by ECA’s Cultural Heritage Center in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. From September 2008 to April 2011, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project provided $12.9 million for the following:

  • infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, including the museum’s roof, 11 exhibition halls, 9 conservation labs, 3 floors of collections storage facilities and installation of a new environmental control system
  • the establishment of IICAH in Erbil, which continues to train heritage staff members throughout Iraq
  • increased professional capacity in Iraq’s heritage and museum communities through:
  • a training program for Iraqi professionals in the preservation of buildings and sites, collections care and conservation, and museum education and manage­ment, conducted at the Field Museum of Natural History
  • the bilingual publication of reports on past excavations by Iraqi archaeologists, in collaboration with the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq
  • the provision of paper and electronic publications to museum libraries in Baghdad and Mosul, coordinated by Stony Brook University in collaboration with the Iraq National Museum

Project partners included International Relief and Development, the Iraq Ministry of Culture and State Board of Antiquities and Heritage; the Kurdistan Regional Government; University of Delaware Art Conservation Department; the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library; the Walters Art Museum; the Field Museum of Natural History; the U.S. National Park Service; Stony Brook University; and the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq.

Well-trained cultural heritage professionals and preservationists are critical to the future of Iraq. The U.S. Department of State is committed to working with Iraq to protect and preserve this shared heritage by supporting American institutional partners to collabo­rate with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage on a variety of projects.

In order to interpret and understand cultural objects that span time and culture, we need to commit to bring together technical experts and students and teachers in the human­ities. We also must endeavor to create more educational exchange programs that focus on cultural heritage law and advocacy. This means we must consult with and include spe­cialists in the fields of law, art history, public policy/planning, archaeology, American studies, anthropology, landscape architecture, cultural resource management, etc.  We need to reaffirm the breadth of the U.S. commitment to Iraq, through our embassy and consulate, ECA, the Smithsonian and others.


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Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2015-2016