Basrah Museum - Preserving the cultural heritage of Iraq

27 Feb 2020

Since 2007, a team of diverse stakeholders have been working tirelessly to preserve and promote the rich and ancient heritage of Basrah specifically, and the wider region and country, generally. Liane Butcher, RPS Associate and  Trustee, Friends of Basrah Museum, shares the story of the Basrah Museum and why preserving cultural heritage is important.

The British Army first conceived this project, as the original Basrah Museum, an old courtyard house, went to rack and ruin during the war. The museum is located in the former Lakeside Palace, on the edge of the Shatt al Arab. This venue was selected to house the new Basrah Museum and a wider cultural centre in Basrah, for the people of Basrah.

The British School of Archaeology of Iraq’s (Gertrude Bell’s memorial) treasury of books has been excavated from the depths of the British Embassy in Baghdad. They are being dusted off, ready for display - their first in nearly three decades.

The collection started in the 1920s, is dedicated to deepening our understanding of the archaeology of both the country and the wider region. It will soon be available once again for the public to study and enjoy.

The books survived the decades of conflict thanks to their custodians, who carefully packed them into boxes for safe storage in 1991, while they closed the institute during the invasion. In 2010, the Friends of Basrah Museum (FoBM), a UK registered charity, was established to facilitate and steward a new Museum for Basrah. With four galleries of precious artefacts and an inclusive education centre already opened to the public, plus a library opening this month, the custodians of the collection realised the Basrah Museum would make a fitting new home for this legendary collection.

“On many occasions since I embarked upon this unchartered journey with the FoBM Trustees, people have not unreasonably questioned the justification for spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a museum, when people are still suffering without basic human rights.”, Liane Butcher, RPS Associate and  Trustee, Friends of Basrah Museum commented.

As with all things in life, I say it’s a balance. Following the initial emergency relief efforts, how do you help to reunite a people so divided by recent history? I believe one way is through celebrating and sharing their rich heritage and identity. After all, if we learn about each other, we can better understand each other.”

It’s a testament to the power of true public/private partnerships that this ambitious project has been realised. Diverse stakeholders have been crucial to the project’s success. A significant donation from the BP Foundation allowed the palace building to be secured, and the first gallery to be opened. Coupled with British government support, funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ensuring the remaining three galleries and other enhancements were also completed.

“The project has, at times, been demanding. Whilst balancing the needs of various stakeholders is always challenging, I believe the mutual accountability and buy-in has also been the reason for its success.”, commented Liane.

"One of the most enduring legacies from this project will be the small team of local people running the museum. This team is a blend of committed employees and passionate volunteers, collectively building the local knowledge and expertise in this area of international interest. The local team on the ground are critical to making this a sustainable, legacy project. A combination of on-the-job training, external courses with partner institutes in key skills, complemented with mentoring by the FoBM and other project partners, will help to ensure the Basrah Museum endures. ” she said.

Visit the Friends of Basrah Museum website for more details.

Cutting the  ribbon at the opening ceremony at the Basrah Museum

Maysoon Al-Damluji, Cultural Group Leader, Iraqi Parliament, 2016 cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony at the Basrah Museum

Frontier archaeological and oil & gas exploration have faltered in recent years, largely due to financial and security concerns, leaving vast swathes of the countryside yet to be explored. Whilst the duty of care to protect cultural heritage sites varies between regions there isn’t necessarily a contractual obligation to do so - most organisations work to international best practice which includes the International Finance Corporation (IFC) standards. One of IFC’s 8 Performance Standards is cultural heritage protection. Before conducting any major works programs, Operators undertake an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), a benchmark assessment which includes the identification of any cultural heritage sites within the concession area that need to be protected. To date, local Government audits in this regard have not taken place. Failure to protect sites could create a long-term ESG liability for Operators and their partners.

For more information on how RPS can support you to meet your ESG obligations, please contact Liane Butcher.

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Liane Butcher

Associate 07534 317742 EMAIL

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