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In the 19th century, the expeditions of Rich, Rawlinson, Layard, Botta, Loftus, Smith and others first exposed the western world to the richness of ancient Mesopotamian material culture. The Ottoman policy concerning the treatment of antiquities allowed foreign excavators to remove all finds to their own countries. In 1881, Osman Hamdi Bey, the first director of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, required that all excavated finds be divided between Istanbul and the foreign countries sponsoring excavations.

At the start of WWI, excavation in Iraq came to a halt. On October 30, 1918, the Armistice of Mudros brought an end to the war in the Middle East, and Britain was left in control of all of modern-day Iraq. The first king of Iraq, Faisal I, was to prove an important supporter of the idea of the Iraq Museum. His advisor and confidant, Gertrude Bell was instrumental in installing him as the ruler of Iraq. In 1923, Bell, the Oxford educated British Intelligence agent, Arabist, and archaeologist was appointed Director of Antiquities in Iraq. As such, she fought to keep Iraqi antiquities in Iraq. Under her direction, one room in Iraq�s government building in Baghdad was dedicated to housing Iraqi antiquities. In 1926, a new building was founded on the east side of the Tigris to house artifacts. This building was named the Iraq Museum, and Bell became its director until her death later that year. She was followed in this position by R.S. Cooke (1926-1929), Sidney Smith (1929-1931), Julius Jordan (1931-1934), and Sati al-Husri (1934-1941), who encouraged the excavation of Arab Islamic sites like Kufa, Basra, and Wasit. Jordan (1934-1939) and Seton Lloyd (1939-1941) each served as advisors to Sati al-Husri.

The Iraq Museum was born during a period of feverish excavation in Iraq. The seminal excavations by a joint American and British team at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, the French at Telloh and Kish, and the Germans at Warka all provided the nascent Iraq Museum with some of the most stunning and culturally significant pieces in the collection.

The end of British Mandate in 1932 brought an independent Iraq into the League of Nations. In 1936, during the reign of King Ghazi, Faisal I�s son, a new antiquities law was enacted. All artifacts over 200 years old were now officially the property of the state and could not be removed without the permission of the government. In the years after the implementation of the Antiquities Law, some of the most important excavations in Iraq were carried out at sites such as Khafaje, Tell Asmar, Hassuna, Eridu, Shanidar cave, and Jarmo, along with new projects at Numrud and Nippur.

In 1966, the museum moved to a new two-story building organized around a single courtyard on the west side of the Tigris. The museum was renamed the Iraq National Museum, and in 1986 a second courtyard building was added to the museum.

Between 1980 and 1988, during the war between Iraq and Iran, the pace of archaeology in Iraq slowed considerably. After 1988, excavations continued at sites like Nimrud, Nineveh, Jemdet Nasr, Hatra, Sippar, and Nemrik.

By the time of the first Gulf War, when foreign archeology in Iraq once again ground to a halt, the items on display in the Iraq Museum represented fewer than 3% of the museum�s holdings. During the first Gulf War, the building across the street from the Iraq Museum was bombed and several display cases in the museum were shattered. The most important objects were moved to the basement of the museum’s old storage building. Hundreds of these objects were damaged when the basement was flooded.

In February 2003, the museum officially closed and on April 10, 2003, the looting of the Iraq Museum focused the world�s attention on the cultural heritage of Iraq and sparked a multinational effort to catalogue and retrieve the thousands of missing artifacts.

Ghaidan, Usam, and Anna Paolini. “A Short History of the Iraq National Museum.” In The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Mesopotamia. Edited by Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster. 20-25. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.
Goodman, Susan. Gertrude Bell. Oxford: Berg, 1992.
Russell, John Malcolm. “Robbing the Archaeological Cradle.” Natural History Magazine, February 2001.
Werr, Lamia Al-Gailani. “A Museum is Born.” In The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Mesopotamia. Edited by Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster. 27-33. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.