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The Mosul Cultural Museum

An international partnership for the reopening of one of the most important Iraqi museums

Modernism alone, without taking into account regional and cultural distinctions, cannot make for successful practice. The philosophy underlying modern architecture is distinctly Western and derived from Greek and Roman sources. While Western art and architecture, in all of their forms, have evolved in a direction quite different from Islamic art and architecture, an approach to architectural practice consisting only of introducing Western forms into the Islamic environment cannot be considered suitable or desirable. In this respect modernism stands in opposition to heritage. Whereas the former is informed only by scientific and technological concerns, the latter includes both the aesthetic and functional, two inseparable attributes of urbanism in Islamic thought”.1

These words of the renowned modernist architect Mohammed Makiya (1914-2015) clearly express his vision of architecture that, while connected to the contemporary, should not forget the legacy of the past. This vision was shared not only by architects but also by an entire generation of Iraqi artists.

The Iraqi architect Mohammed Makiya was, in fact, the first president of the Iraqi Artists Association, established in January 1956, whose logo, designed by Jewad Selim (1919-1961), drew inspiration from a statue of the Sumerian ruler Gudea. The new and modern Iraqi painting, therefore, placed itself under the banner of an ancient ruler of Mesopotamia who lived in the 22nd century BCE. Furthermore, during the inaugural activity of the Association in the spring of 1956, Makiya announced that among the association’s activities was the promotion of archaeology, architecture, and local craftsmanship.2 According to the architect, Iraqi contemporary art should not ignore history and traditional craftsmanship.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in the late 1960s, Makiya acquired The Master Builder, a sculpture by his recently deceased friend artist Jewad Selim, to place it inside the Mosul Museum, where the architect was working on a significant expansion project.

The construction of Mosul Cultural Museum is completed (1972), Courtesy of the Gulbenkian Foundation Archives/ Makiya Associates

The Mosul Cultural Museum, after Baghdad’s, is the most important museum in Iraq, founded in 1952 with the aim of collecting historical and artistic evidence from Northern Mesopotamia. Subsequently, the original nucleus of the museum underwent significant expansion work entrusted to Mohammed Makiya, and the new building was finally officially inaugurated (though with numerous modifications from the architect’s original intentions) in July 1974.

Today, the Mosul Cultural Museum is at the center of a new important restoration project, which we had the opportunity to discuss with Alessandra Peruzzetto, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa for World Monuments Fund (WMF) – the independent organization committed to preserving cultural heritage worldwide, which has been present in Iraq since 2004.

The Mosul Cultural Museum is sadly known for having been severely attacked in 2015 by the terroristic organization Daesh.

Alessandra Peruzzetto is familiar with Iraq and, above all, has had the opportunity to visit Mosul before the occupation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Daesh) in 2014 and the subsequent foundation of the Islamic caliphate.

I was working at Hatra, and during the weekends, I often went to Mosul. It’s a beautiful city, I really like it. Despite the war, even today the atmosphere of Mosul remains intact. The ancient city of Mosul was very beautiful. It reminded me of Aleppo, but smaller and more compact. There were beautiful houses decorated in grey alabaster. A type of local stone, the same used to carve the ancient Assyrian reliefs”.

Alessandra also explained that the museum was and is divided into several sections: the Mezzanine dedicated to prehistory; the Assyrian Hall, with artworks from the 9th to the 6th century BCE, including the important Banquet Stele of King Ashurnasirpal II commemorating the construction of the city of Nimrud as the new capital of the Assyrian Empire; the Hatra Hall, with works ranging from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE; and an Islamic Hall with evidence from the medieval period (9th-13th centuries).Among the victims of this barbaric attack was also the Banquet Stele, as well as over two thousand books from the museum’s library. The sculptures were blown up, and when Mosul was liberated in 2017, a crater caused by these detonations was found inside the building.

The eastern part of Mosul was perhaps the least destroyed by the war. The major damage occurred in the western part of the city. Some destruction was caused by Daesh, such as that of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri; others are the result of the liberation battle. Where there was once the Mosque, near the old city, there are now international organizations like UNESCO. UNESCO is now working at the reconstruction of the mosque and of Al Hadba minaret. The Museum, however, is just outside the medieval city, on the west bank of the Tigris River. It has a bridge in front, and on the other side is Nineveh. The Museum, therefore, connects the ancient Assyrian city to the Medieval city”.

Damaged entrance of the Mosul Cultural Museum (2021), Courtesy of Aliph, Photographer: Rosalie Gonzalez

After the liberation, the Iraqi authorities asked for help from ALIPH (International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, based in Geneva) to obtain assistance aimed at reopening the Museum. Thus begins, from 2018, an international partnership that, through the support of ALIPH, involves the SBAH (Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, owners of the Museum), the Louvre Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and, since 2020, the World Monuments Fund.

The Smithsonian is responsible for training the staff in Museum Studies for the management of the Museum. The Louvre is engaged in restoring what remains of the collection, particularly the Assyrian objects. WMF, on the other hand, is working on the architectural restoration project. The idea is to reintegrate Makiya’s original plan into the Museum (the Museum has undergone modifications over time by the Ministry of Culture). Additionally, WMF (with Louvre and SBAH) also deals with the museography, that is, the narrative within the Museum. In our work team, there is also a Community Outreach Expert. In the restoration of a building, contact with local communities is important, especially to understand the importance of the Museum for them. It is essential to remember that this is a Museum that has been closed for almost twenty years, and therefore there is an entire generation that has never visited it”.

Mosul Cultural Museum staff documenting the damage in the Assyrian Hall (2019), Courtesy of SBAH

Furthermore, in line with Mohammed Makiya’s vision, great importance is given to the memory of what happened within the project of reconstruction and reopening of the Museum. Objects that have been mutilated will not be entirely restored, and, above all, the crater caused by the detonations in the ground will not be repaired. “The mutilation of the building and the collection will remain in the Museum’s narrative. This is what the Iraqis wanted”. The historical memory of the past remains intact, but this time as a warning to future generations.

The Mosul Cultural Museum will finally be returned to the Iraqis by 2026.

  1. Mohamed Makiya (1983), “Enviromental Design in the Arab World“. In: A. Evin, ed., Development and Urban Metamorphosis. Vol. 1: Yemen at the Cross-Roads. Singapore: Concept Media/Aga Khan Award for Architecture. ↩︎
  2. Ahmed Naji, Under the Palm Trees: Modern Iraqi Art with Mohamed Makiya and Jewad Selim, 2019, p. 136 ↩︎

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