Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 15, 2004|Volume 33, Number 7















Helmets and bulletproof vests were required gear for Peabody curator Catherine Sease (center) and the rest of the State Department team that traveled to Iraq.

Yale curator traded lab
for work in Iraqi war zone

Not long after the world learned of the looting of Iraq's National Museum of Baghdad and other key museums and archaeological sites in the country, Catherine Sease, senior conservator at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, was there to survey the damage.

Sease was one of a group of four specialists asked by the U.S. Department of State to travel to Baghdad in October 2003 to assess the condition of the National Museum following the looting rampage in April. The museum is home to hundreds of thousands of cultural and archaeological treasures and artifacts.

What Sease saw made her sad.

"The museum itself really did not suffer much damage physically or structurally, but there was a lot of damage as a result of the looting," she says. "People swept in and had basically trashed the place."

Looters, she notes, took more than just priceless museum treasures; they grabbed anything that could be carried away, including chairs, tables and lamps, and had even pulled out the wires of an electric service box to get the copper in the wiring.

"Artifacts were smashed, and it looked like people had just swept their arms across the shelves and knocked down whatever was on them," Sease says of the scene she witnessed. "The Iraqis used tin trunks in which they stored museum pieces, and these were just opened and dumped on the floor. Some glass cases were broken, and one or two statues were broken. It was very hard to see piles of broken pots and other artifacts in a heap on the floor."

Sease spent eight days in Baghdad. During that time, she and the other members of the State Department-sponsored team stayed in the Republican Palace (one of Saddam Hussein's presidential compounds) in the Green Zone, the heavily guarded section of central Baghdad where many U.S. personnel were stationed. She and others on the team were given protective equipment -- including gas masks, helmets and bulletproof vests -- as a safety precaution as they traveled from the Palace to the museum escorted by military personnel or bodyguards.

The team spent four or five hours a day in the museum, where they assessed what reconstructive and other measures would need to be taken to make the museum operational again.

"Everyone on the team had his or her own area of specialty," says Sease. "One person was a museum facilities manager from the National Gallery in Washington; he examined the heating, ventilation and water systems, and other facilities issues in the Iraqi museum. Another person operated his own information technology business and was responsible for looking at the computer system -- or lack thereof. Another member of the team was a museum security specialist. My role was to look at the collections that were still there and assess the damage done by looters.

"Luckily, in this case, museum staff had some warning before the war began and were able to remove a lot of the museum's objects out to storerooms elsewhere," she adds. "Otherwise, there would have been much more destruction and loss when the looting frenzy took place."

Sease, who has worked at the Peabody Museum since 2000, was invited on the trip because of her expertise in the conservation of archaeological objects. She has worked at archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Great Britain and other locales, and had three times before worked at excavation sites in Iraq. Her earliest trip was in the 1970s, and she later went back with her husband, archaeologist David Reese, shortly before the Gulf War.

Although her team was confined to a very circumscribed route during its stay in Iraq, Sease says that what little she saw of Baghdad at the time was disturbing.

"Things were relatively quiet when I was there, but every morning I could see black smoke on the horizon and helicopters flying around," recalls Sease. "We'd hear some mortars being fired. Most of the government buildings were bombed and were empty shells. It wasn't the bustling, vibrant city I remember from the 1990s, let alone the 1970s."

She also had limited contact with Iraqi citizens in Baghdad, other than National Museum staff members, who, Sease says, were "very demoralized."

"Museum staff had just gotten all the exhibits back in place after having taken them down for the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War," explains Sease, noting that the museum was closed after the American air strikes in 1991 and didn't reopen until the spring of 2000. "So in addition to their dismay about that, they were also coping with all that was going on in their homes and neighborhoods. I can't imagine going to work when worrying every minute about the safety of family."

One uplifting moment of her trip was when Sease got to see one of Iraq's museum treasures -- the "Warka Head." This life-size mask-like stone face, sculpted circa 2,200 B.C., had been stolen from the museum but had been returned a few days before the U.S. team arrived in Baghdad.

"Seeing that was special," says Sease, adding that the "Warka Head" is one of hundreds of pieces that have been returned since an amnesty was issued allowing people to return art and artifact treasures without fear of punishment. The conservator says there are still many thousands of pieces of missing from the museum's collections, and many of these may never be recovered.

To grasp the degree of the Baghdad museum's loss, Sease has only to imagine the theft or destruction of objects she has cared for at the Peabody Museum, where her job, essentially, is to be "a doctor for artifacts," the conservator says.

"I both repair museum artifacts and objects and work to prevent damage to them," comments Sease. "Since collections and artifacts can't speak for themselves, I try to speak for them. I ensure that they are properly cared for so that they are available for teaching and research, as well as for the enjoyment of the general public."

Most conservators, Sease says, feel passionate about their work to protect artifacts, and thus were especially distraught by news of the widespread looting of archaeological treasures in Iraq.

"The artifacts you find at sites in Iraq are just fabulous," she says. "They are wonderful in and of themselves, but are even more of a treasure when you consider how old they are, and you see how sophisticated people were in ancient times in terms of their manufacturing technologies."

Nevertheless, the conservator also says that she keeps her emotions about the loss of Iraqi objects in perspective.

"In times of war, human life has to be more valuable, and your top priority," she says. "What happened in Iraq has happened many times elsewhere: in Afghanistan and Beirut, for example. Look at all the theft and destruction of art and artifacts during World War II. War is arbitrary, and unlike in Iraq -- where museum personnel had some advance warning -- there often is no warning, no way to safeguard cultural treasures."

Sease is heartened by the fact that many of the recommendations made by herself and other members of the team have been acted upon. The State Department is providing some support for the rebuilding of the museum, and various new facilities systems have been installed.

"The fact that there were positive, tangible results makes me feel that our trip was worth it," says Sease. "That's not to say there is not a lot more to be done, but it is a start."

As she tells others about her work around the globe, including her mission to Iraq, Sease says she is always shattering people's assumptions of what a museum conservator is.

"The stereotypical view of a conservator is of someone sitting in a lab or in isolation gluing pots together. We're not often pictured carrying out our work in a war zone. But, in my case, that has been part of it."

Sease will talk about her trip to Iraq's National Museum during the "Iraq Beyond the Headlines" panel discussion at 8 p.m. on Oct. 19. For more information on this event, click here.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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