November 4, 2008

Oriental Institute tapped by State Department to train Iraqi scholars

The Oriental Institute is partnering with the Field Museum to help train Iraqi scholars on cultural artifacts preservation as part of a new State Department–funded program launched in October.

As a result of widespread scholarly exits from Iraq due to the recent war, the country doesn’t have adequate experts and personnel to successfully engage in artifact preservation without foreign expertise, according to James Phillips, director of the project and curator of Near Eastern and North African studies at the Field Museum.

“By training Iraqi scholars, we enable them to go back home and pass on their knowledge to other local experts, which in turn, because of the project’s self-sustainability, will have an lasting impact,” Phillips said.

The State Department will grant $1 million to the Field Museum to allow 18 Iraqi scholars to learn technological methods of artifact preservation for six months. The Field Museum will draw on many of the Oriental Institute’s resources to optimize the project, including its extensive artifact preservation training system, personnel, and existing collection of Iraqi artifacts.

According to Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, training for the Iraqi scholars will involve one month of intensive English lessons along with courses in conservation, data collection, and an elective. The aim is to train not only expert archaeological conservationists but also competent museum specialists, who can develop computerized databases to enhance museum organization.

The looting of the Baghdad Museum following the U.S. invasion left precious Iraqi artifacts unprotected and abandoned, according to Stein.

“It’s better late than never,” Stein said. “The American government has been slow to recognize what to do and how to allocate their resources to do it. But we are very excited that, after having read about the destruction that has been taking place in Iraq for so many years, we are finally able to do something.”

Phillips also identified difficulties arising from the current political situation in Iraq.

“Even with the training provided in the United States, the modern equipment used in cultural preservation is often unavailable in Iraq, rendering it impossible for the scholars there to carry on preservation efforts,” he said.

The project is scheduled to last for two years, after which Stein hopes that American cultural institutions will convince the government to extend the project.

The new funding will increase the magnitude of the Oriental Institute’s previous small-scale efforts funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Phillips applauded the appointment of the Field Museum as one of the institutions involved in this project, noting that the Field Museum has been involved with the Middle East since Henry Field, the nephew of the museum’s founder, led an expedition to Mesopotamia in 1923.

“We already have an enormous collection of Iraq artifacts and are actively involved in the cataloging and preservation of these artifacts, not to mention our personnel available to aid in the training of these scholars,” he said.