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 This was  written in April of 2003, shortly after the ill-fated US occupation of Baghdad, when it was reported that the Iraqi National Museam had been looted.         

                        In Mourning for Museums

The tragic looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad distresses me on many levels. It is not only that my wife and I like visiting museums. It is not only the irreparable loss of an important part of the whole world's heritage, materials which could help answer the question, "how did we get to be the way we are?"

Part of it is that it evokes past memories, memories of other museums that are no longer there. We recall thefts from museums, and the departure of favorite museum displays for any number of other reasons, including political ones.

In 1988, I first encountered the museums of East Berlin. I was attending a computer science meeting, in West Berlin, in the days when the Wall was still a substantial barrier. My wife and I spent most of a week visiting the sights of West Berlin, including the famous bust of Nefertiti. Late in the week, we decided to have a look at East Berlin, took the subway over, and went through the then tedious entry formalities for the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.

And we made an amazing discovery. From the point of view of museums, we had spent a week in the suburbs. In those days when so little was said about Eastern Germany in the United States, we had almost forgotten that before World War One, Germany had been one of the great empires, and that German scholars and researchers had brought back artifacts and knowledge from all over the world.

The Pergamon Museum received little or no mention in the Western-oriented guidebooks we had read, but we had to go back to it several times. It contains an almost complete ancient Greek temple, from Pergamon in Asia Minor. For my wife and I, laymen in this area, it surpassed the Elgin Marbles, and was exquisitely displayed. The museum had turned the temple inside out for indoor display, and had an excellent exhibit showing how the jigsaw puzzles of  broken statues had been put together. And the museum has tiles, artifacts, and a reconstruction of part of Nebuchadnezzer's palace -- things that we had not imagined still existed, and that of course are even more essential now after the loss of artifacts from the Baghdad museum. Maybe there is a case to be made for leaving some 'looted' objects in other countries, after all.

With the reunification of Germany, the museums of central Berlin are far easier to visit than they were fifteen years ago. They are well known to the experts, and now to other travelers from the United States. The change of government involved no bombing, no looting. But even in this case, there are exhibits that were very striking fifteen years ago that are, to my regret,
now absent.

I recall the Museum of German History, in Berlin, from 1988. It was, of course, then a museum of -communist- German history. It was captivating to us to see the communist slant on the history of Nazism and the course of the world wars, but even more interesting to see the exhibits on relations with the West. I hadn't grasped, before then, the extent to which the East German government portrayed itself to its own citizens as under siege by the West, but this museum displayed it clearly. The Wall, of course, was to keep out spies and provocateurs. People were captured sneaking in, not sneaking out.

An entire room showed United States congressional hearings on military preparedness; the graphs and charts that showed our side how we would defend the West were displayed there, as our plans to invade East Germany. And there was the display of comic books. Comic books, the exhibit explained, were produced expressly to corrupt the minds of East German youth. One clear piece of evidence was that they were priced lower in Berlin than in the rest of (west) Germany. They were, of course. It was one of the many little ways in which life in West Berlin was subsidized, or taxed less, during and after the Berlin Airlift of 1948.

The Museum of German History was one of the best exhibits I ever saw, on the subject of propaganda, of "the other way" of seeing things, of how facts can be twisted or seen differently. Friends who have visited Berlin tell me that all of that is gone now, and the Museum shows, now, German History. It probably does that well, but it's not the same. I hope the old exhibits have been saved somewhere, and that someday there will be a retrospective, so that I can show my grandchildren what East Berlin was like in the 1980's.

I sometimes dream of a Museum of Lost Museums. If we ever get one, it won't have much to show from the Iraqi National Museum. Wars do that, and I don't have the solution. But I can mourn, and try to remember .

Edward Ordman

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