Telling Stories in Basrah: A New Museum for Iraq
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MBI Al Jaber Lecture Series: “Telling Stories in Basrah: A New Museum for Iraq” by Dr Paul Collins

Dr Paul Collins, Chair of the Trustees of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI)
Dr Paul Collins, Chair of the Trustees of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI)

“Telling Stories in Basrah: A New Museum for Iraq”, the sixth lecture in the 2017/2018 MBI Al Jaber Lecture Series, was introduced by Joan Porter McIver, UK Project Coordinator of the Friends of Basrah Museum (FOBM). The FOBM is a charity that was set up with the goal of fostering the study of Iraqi cultural heritage and awards grants with this aim in mind. It was created when a suitable building was chosen to host a new national museum; this started out as the Basrah Gallery, exhibiting artefacts from southern Iraq and the region of Basrah.

Dr Paul Collins, Chair of the Trustees of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), began his lecture by defining what it was like to set up a museum in post-war Iraq and the broader Middle East. He underlined how the British presence in Iraq focused on Mesopotamian antiquities, which were claimed by the West as the foundation of its civilisation. Excavations taking place in Iraq after World War I were kept strictly under British and American control, with local people employed only as labourers. The first actual Iraqi museum was established by Gertrude Bell, who was appointed Head of Antiquities by King Faisal. At that time, the museum only exhibited a few items from British excavation sites, but it was a starting point, and it was followed by the birth of the first British-Iraqi School of Archaeology. The cultural heritage regulation drafted by Bell was extremely generous to foreign archaeologists, allowing them to retain a huge share of the finds.

In 1926, the first national museum was inaugurated but it was not until 1932, after the British withdrawal from Iraq, that Iraqi nationals were appointed to senior positions within the museum hierarchy (e.g. Director of Antiquities and so on). It was only then that local people were trained as professional archaeologists. Museums looked very much like the British Museum at that time but their narrative was poor, with very little labelling. Only in the 1960s would regional museums throughout Iraq start to flourish and take on the form of vibrant, modern places, which featured treasure troves as part of their national identity. The Basrah Museum was amongst these regional institutions.

The 1990s represented a period of decline and various museums were closed because of looting. The British school of archaeology was closed too, owing to a lack of funding by the British government; it was later reborn as a charity, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI). After the invasion of Iraq that began in 2003, the former palace of Saddam Hussein was converted into the current Basrah Museum with funding for development raised by the FOBM.

Paul Collins concluded his presentation by saying that Iraqi museums are today not so different to how they were before the war; they still need to be more effective and enhance their storytelling. He praised the commitment of institutions such as UCL, the University of Oxford and the University of Kurdistan for setting up the Nahrein Network, a research fund that encourages the sustainable development of antiquities and cultural heritage on Iraqi soil.

During the Q&A session that followed Paul’s talk, members of the audience raised a good number of questions, showing interest in the topics of both the main presentation and the introduction.

The sixth presentation of the MBI Al Jaber Lecture Series will be on Thursday 17th May 2018. “Blue and White Ceramics in the Middle East: Exchanges with China” will be delivered by Dr Melanie Gibson, Executive Trustee of the Gingko Library and Senior Editor of the Gingko Library Art Series. For more details, please go to our Forthcoming Events page at:

We look forward to seeing you there

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