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Culture

Germans Pitch in to Rebuild the Cradle of Civilization

German museums have joined international efforts to aid Iraq’s top cultural institutions after they were devastated by widespread looting and fire last week.

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The plundered vault of the National Museum in Baghdad.

Leading German museum directors and academics on Tuesday offered their support to Baghdad, after waves of looting decimated the collection of its National Museum and fire gutted precious contents of the Iraqi National Library.

Germany's group of national museums, the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin has joined hands with the four largest museums in the world – St. Petersburg's Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris – to offer aid to the National Museum.

After initial talks in Paris last Thursday, representatives from the museums, together with academics and UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency will meet at a conference in London next Tuesday to decide how best help can be provided.

Thousands of objects are presumed missing from the Iraq National Museum, which had housed one of the largest collections of Mesopotamian artifacts and Islamic art in the world, some of which dated back 10,000 years.

Assessing the damage

"Of course, we just don't know as yet how bad the damage is," Professor Hans J. Nissen, an archaeological expert and former professor of History and Cultural Sciences at Berlin's Free University told DW-WORLD.

Initially reports from the Iraqi capital suggested that up to as many as 170,000 pieces had been looted from the museums, although later reports indicated that the losses were not as bad. British, German and American experts have already traveled to Iraq to get a better picture of the destruction.

"The information we have at the moment is sparse and unconfirmed," Ralf Wartke, spokesman for Berlin's Ancient Near East museum said. “We are waiting for our colleagues in Baghdad to let us know how bad the situation is, so we can decide on what sort of help is the most meaningful."

The experts involved in the aid initiative say they envisage providing expertise to help catalogue the lost items – a step which was taken in the last Gulf war – and may also send restorative experts to the region to help in the effort.

Financial aid – from both state and private sources – may also be on the cards, although exact sums have not been agreed as yet. "We are talking sums of under a million (U.S. dollars) initially…in the long term, that sum could easily rise to millions, " Chris Walker, a deputy keeper at the British Museum told DW-WORLD.

A disastrous loss

Iraq's National Museum, which was founded in the 1920s by British mandate forces is regarded as having had one of the most extensive collections of ancient Near East art and artifacts in the world. Experts say the looting which has gone on is a tragedy.

"There wasn't a catalogue at the museum,” Claus-Peter Haase, director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin told DW-WORLD. "A lot of the finds especially of smaller medieval objects were very new and they weren't photographed either. It will be very hard to establish (a new catalogue). I fear it is as bad as it seems."

Das geplünderte Nationalmuseum in Bagdad

Experts assess the damage at the National Museum.

Many valuable pieces of art are expected to end up on the black market. After the last Gulf War, ten regional museums were plundered and around 4,000 pieces were lost. Many of them are presumed to have been sold illegally to private collectors around the world.

"Only three or five pieces were ever gotten back," said Peter Miglus, archaeological expert and professor at Heidelberg University. The situation at Iraq's national library and archive, which contained some of the best known examples of Islamic scrolls and Korans, appears to be even worse. According to some reports, the building was the victim of an arson attack and much of the collection is feared lost forever.