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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,
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
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