1. Basrah Museum in southern Iraq is housed in Saddam Hussein's former Lakeside Palace.

Basrah Museum – from war to glory

The new Basrah Museum in southern Iraq, which opened to the public earlier this year, is going from strength to strength – not least because it has just received a donation of 3000 books. The British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), formerly the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, has given its entire library to the museum. When the school closed in the 1990s (after the first Gulf War) the books were stored in tin trunks in the French and British Embassies. They will soon have a new home in Basrah Museum which has earmarked a room for the library-cum-resource-centre.

'We hope the library, like the museum, will become a resource not just for Basrah but for the whole of southern Iraq and the wider region maybe even the Gulf states,' explains Dr John Curtis, Chairman of the Friends of Basrah Museum (FBM), a charity which raised money to set up the museum.

The two charities (FBM and BISI) are assisting in the compilation of a catalogue and an online catalogue and a campaign for book donation is envisaged. 'But we don't want lots of duplicate books arriving in Basra so we need to compile the catalogue first,' Curtis emphasises.

The museum's first gallery, which opened in September 2016, displays artefacts relating to the history of Basra from the Hellenistic period (circa 300 BC) through to the Islamic period. Three new galleries, devoted to Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, opened in March of this year. For these, 2000 objects were sent from Baghdad, including some exhibits from the original Basrah Museum, which had been housed in a Turkish courtyard house on the banks of Ashar Creek and which was badly looted in 1991 during the uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime. The new museum is now housed in Saddam's former Lakeside Palace.

2. The first gallery tells the story of Basrah from the Hellenistic to the Islamic periods.

The idea of setting up a museum was first discussed at the British Museum in September 2007. Major General Barney White-Spunner had just been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of British troops and General Officer Commanding the Multi-National Division South-East. He asked Neil MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum, and Dr John Curtis, who was Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, how the British army could do to help protect and promote Iraq's cultural heritage.

'We asked for a survey of archaeological sites in southern Iraq to see how badly they had been looted and also to look at the museums,' Curtis recalls.

Army engineers decided that the former Lakeside Palace would be the best location for a new museum – as part of the British legacy to Basrah – and the Royal Engineers drew up detailed plans for the museum. Qahtan Al Abeed, the director of the existing museum, embraced the project enthusiastically as the looted museum was not fit for purpose: it was located in an old house in poor condition; in an insecure part of the town; and unsuitable for displaying and safeguarding high value archaeological and historical material. It was assumed that funding would be made available by the British government and the Department for International Development after the army was withdrawn from southern Iraq early in 2009 but, sadly, this did not happen.

'There was a plan of the building and a proposal for a museum project, but no funding,' says Curtis. He approached BP who provided $500,000 to renovate the Lakeside Palace, convert it into a museum and set up the first gallery.

The grant was made available on the condition that a charity would be set up to channel the funds and the Friends of Basrah Museum was formed in July 2010. The British Council's Cultural Protection Fund, set up to protect cultural heritage at risk due to conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, provided £771,000 which was used to complete the installation of the three remaining galleries, to assist with staff training and to establish the resource centre.

(Visit http://friendsofbasrahmuseum.org.uk)

Karen Dabrowska