Fred A. Bernstein

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Securing the Iraq Museum

Protecting antiquities from war and looters

Published in The New York Times, January 23, 2005

The Safety of Iraqi Objects

Like actors pushing films and authors reading from their books, museum directors go on tour to promote renovations. On Tuesday, for instance, Kimerly Rorschach of Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art will take over a room at Caf� Gray in Manhattan to show the architect Rafael Vi�oly's designs for a $15 million upgrade.

It wasn't that different a few weeks ago when Donny George, the director of the Iraq Museum, came to New York to show journalists photos of the museum's recent improvements. At a conference table at the headquarters of the World Monuments Fund, with coffee and croissants laid out nearby, about a dozen reporters watched as Mr. George clicked through a presentation of modifications to the museum, which remains closed. But there was no architect present, and the changes weren't meant to bring more light to the museum's galleries or to create a public gathering space. Most involved fortifications: walls, fences, enhanced guard booths, vaults designed to keep art in the building until order is restored to Iraq. This was, after all, the museum from which an estimated 14,000 objects were looted following the American invasion.

"It looks like a prison, but right now that's the best way," said Mr. George, who made the trip largely to draw attention to the difficulties of protecting antiquities in Iraq. He said he takes a different route to the museum each day to avoid becoming a target for kidnappers or assassins, adding, "Every day I say a little prayer."

At most such events, publicists hand out discs with pictures and renderings for publication. But this time, none were forthcoming - for security reasons, photos of the changes to the Iraq Museum (which include false walls to confuse looters) will remain on Mr. George's laptop.