Corine Wegener, army reservist of 20 years and assistant curator for the Department of Architecture, Design, Decorative Arts, Craft, and Sculpture for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, discussed the mission she was recently given in Iraq – to preserve the thousand years old art from Mesopotamia that was in the Iraq Museum after it was ransacked by looters during the U.S. invasion of Baghdad.
During her presentation on Nov. 5 in Lisser Hall, Wegener discussed a sometimes overlooked element of the armed forces which functions to assist civilians of the country during times of armed conflict – the Army’s Civil Affairs. Civil Affairs is responsible for maintaining and repairing the infrastructure used by the civilians of a country during armed conflict. Civil Affairs duties range from building schools and hospitals to preserving important cultural artifacts. Wegener worked as the U.S. Army’s arts, monuments and archives manager in Iraq from May 16, 2003 to March 2, 2004.
“Civil Affairs is a relatively small community where 98 percent are reservists because the whole idea is that you are going to bring a skill to the army that they don’t normally have,” said Wegener.
Wegener remembered how she saw the images of the ransacked, 28 gallery Iraq Museum on television in April 2003. Many objects were stolen, some were hacked in half, and some were completely destroyed.
“I was amazed when I turned on the TV and saw, just as all of you did, people running out of the Iraq national Museum with artwork,” said Wegener, “I was really appalled.”
According to Wegener, the United States armed forces have “protected target lists” that classify certain areas as protected by missile targets during war. She knew that the Iraq Museum was a “protected target,” but that didn’t mean that it was protected from looters.
About two weeks later, she was called by the armed forces requesting her services as a museum curator.
“I was very angry to be honest because under the Geneva Convention we have a responsibility to protect cultural property in a country in this situation,” said Wegener, “and it just wasn’t done.”
According to Wegener, the media stated that there were 170,000 missing objects in all. Wegener found out that that number was wrong – out of the 500,000 items in the museum, only 170,000 were catalogued, not stolen. In fact, some Iraqi cultural officials hid many of the movable objects in the museum and stored them in an undisclosed location for safe-keeping before the invasion of Baghdad, where they remain to this day. According to Wegener, only 15,000 objects were stolen and about 4,000 to 5,000 objects have been recovered. Many were returned to the museum by Iraqi citizens, some were found at military checkpoints, and some were found by U.S. military personnel.
“And to be fair, the museum hadn’t been open to the public in two decades. There was an impression that this was a private collection that belonged to Saddam,” said Wegener, “so given the opportunity [the Iraqi citizens] were going to get some payback.”
During an amnesty used to get Iraqis to start returning some of the objects to the museum, three men came to the museum to return a shattered version of the Sacred Vase of Warka. The vase is a nearly four-foot high, 600 pound (when intact) carved limestone vase dating back from 3200 B.C.E. According to Wegener, the men had the vase in the trunk of their car. According to CNN.com’s article “ Warka — known as Uruk in ancient Iraq, or Erech in the Old Testament — is near the Euphrates River in southern Iraq near Samawa. The city was sacred to the goddess Inanna/Ishtar. [The vase] depicts in vivid relief what may be worshippers bearing gifts to the goddess.”
“There was an article that came out just last month that interviewed these young men,” said Wegener, “and it was hilarious to me that they brought it back because their mother wouldn’t speak to them or cook for them until they returned the piece. You got to hand it to moms, you know.”
Wegener worked with the cultural branch of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was responsible at the time for acting as a caretaker of civilian affairs in Iraq until power was turned over to the Iraq Provisional Government on June 28. One example of the type of work that Wegener did while in Iraq with the CPA was to get the Treasure of Nimrud out of a vault beneath the Iraq National Bank, which the bank manager had flooded with sewage in order to prevent thieves from stealing the treasure. Much of the Treasure of Nimrud was locked in one box. Wegener realized that there was an extreme difference between the way that this team and her team back at the Minneapolis Museum would unpack the fragile, solid-gold treasure.
“I can imagine how long it would take to unpack that if it were at my museum, it would take days,” said Wegener, “but it was like Christmas; we did it in about twenty minutes.”
They took the treasure to a secure location. Ambassador Pietro Cordone, the CPA’s senior culture adviser, called for an exhibit a mere three weeks later for the press, who were initially barred from the vault. Wegener showed slides of the gold treasure polished completely clean of all the sewage of the vault from the pieces.
“The staff was just excited about really cleaning this up and presenting it even if it was just to reporters,” said Wegener. “They had a task to do and it was really good for them.”
After the speech, a reception took place in the Mills Art Museum. When asked to reflect on the importance of her work in Iraq, Wegener had this to say: “Art is great, but it doesn’t take precedence over human lives.”
Students were excited at the prospect of the U.S. military having a hand in preserving the culture of Iraq, even though they are at war.
“It’s interesting to see the U.S. military involvement in cultural artifacts,” said Beth Culig, senior.
“It gave a much more hopeful view of what we are doing in Iraq,” said C. Leimomi Gorsich, senior.