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When Will the West Truly Decolonize Its Museums?

The recent repatriation of artifacts to Iraq sets a promising precedent—but it’s not nearly enough.

By , an independent Middle East analyst and an advisor to the Iraqi nongovernmental organization Sanad for Peacebuilding.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet at a ceremony to repatriate it to Iraq.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet at a ceremony to repatriate it to Iraq.
Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University, and Katharyn Hanson, a cultural heritage preservation scholar at the Museum Conservation Institute, look at the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet during a ceremony to repatriate the tablet to Iraq at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington on Sept. 23. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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This summer, the United States said it would repatriate more than 17,000 artifacts looted from Iraq in a landmark deal between Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities and the U.S. Justice Department. Since museums across the West are filled with antiquities stolen during years of colonialism, exploitation, and corruption, the deal sets an important precedent in the effort to decolonize museums and return culturally vital items to their countries of origin.

The deal is being portrayed as part of a global drive to reduce the illegal trade of ancient items. But the items repatriated primarily come from two U.S. collections: the Museum of the Bible and Cornell University. Other artifacts scattered across the West taken in state-backed pillaging—which was supported by, among others, the British, German, and Ottoman governments—remain in place. So although the world should celebrate the artifacts’ return, it should also recognize the deal is not enough.

The international community needs to pressure museums worldwide to continue to return ransacked relics—especially agencies such as UNESCO, which has supported the repatriation. The U.S.-Iraq deal can now help inform that endeavor. It should be used as a model for reassessing how artifacts have been acquired and redressing wrongs from past centuries.

This summer, the United States said it would repatriate more than 17,000 artifacts looted from Iraq in a landmark deal between Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities and the U.S. Justice Department. Since museums across the West are filled with antiquities stolen during years of colonialism, exploitation, and corruption, the deal sets an important precedent in the effort to decolonize museums and return culturally vital items to their countries of origin.

The deal is being portrayed as part of a global drive to reduce the illegal trade of ancient items. But the items repatriated primarily come from two U.S. collections: the Museum of the Bible and Cornell University. Other artifacts scattered across the West taken in state-backed pillaging—which was supported by, among others, the British, German, and Ottoman governments—remain in place. So although the world should celebrate the artifacts’ return, it should also recognize the deal is not enough.

The international community needs to pressure museums worldwide to continue to return ransacked relics—especially agencies such as UNESCO, which has supported the repatriation. The U.S.-Iraq deal can now help inform that endeavor. It should be used as a model for reassessing how artifacts have been acquired and redressing wrongs from past centuries.


Iraq’s artifacts are undeniably valuable. The region that is now modern-day Iraq is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” From the Sumerian’s invention of writing in 3200 B.C. to Hammurabi’s code of conduct composed around 1750 B.C., which is one of the earliest and most complete code of laws, Iraq has contributed to the world’s science, history, and culture. Those ancient civilizations left behind artifacts, many of which are now in the museums of some of the Western world’s largest cities, alongside other treasures plundered from countries worldwide.

Many, but by no means all, of those artifacts were looted after 2003, amid the security vacuum left by the collapse of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Out of desperation from years of economic sanctions, looters grabbed whatever they could, from toilets to electric cables, later stripped for their copper. Iraq’s museums were just as vulnerable, and many Iraqis ransacked countless priceless artifacts.

For three days, antiquities were hauled out of Iraq’s national museum in Baghdad as British and U.S. soldiers looked on, ordered to only protect Iraq’s Ministry of Oil. Items rapidly trickled out of the country, finding their way to global auction houses like Christie’s. Remnants of Iraq’s cultural heritage were sold to collectors and museums alike, even though Iraq’s looting crisis was common knowledge in those circles, and activists and academics protested the auctions. (There is even evidence suggesting Christie’s knew the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a prized 1600 B.C. Akkadian artifact, was illegally imported before the auction house sold it to Hobby Lobby.)

To make matters worse, the Islamic State’s rise in 2014 led the terrorist organization to control some of Iraq’s most culturally significant sites. Overnight, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, collapsed, including the ancient city of Nineveh, the former capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire. To continue funding its expansion, the Islamic State turned to the biblical city’s artifacts, which sparked the interest of wealthy U.S.-based evangelicals, such as Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby. Stolen goods were rushed across the border to Turkey. Since global trade is usually well regulated, illegal dealers often used Facebook’s unfettered Marketplace to reach a Western audience. Items were then frequently mislabeled or disguised on their way to U.S. shores, bypassing import restrictions.

It is items like these the United States is returning to Iraq. Although this is a small victory for countries pressuring Western institutions to decolonize, the U.S. Justice Department’s actions fall short. Yes, the department filed civil action to have artifacts forfeited and successfully returned thousands of pieces, but its investigation failed to address many important Iraqi artifacts that found their way into U.S. museums over the past century. What about Babylon’s Striding Lion, housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or many other artifacts taken from Iraq—and indeed the rest of the Middle East?


The story of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate illustrates how pieces of Iraq’s history ended up—and remain trapped—in the West. Berlin’s Pergamon Museum houses the gate, a colossal blue structure built by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II around 575 B.C, as well as the Processional Way, the magnificent walkway leading to the gate. These crown jewels of Iraq’s cultural heritage were taken from modern-day Iraq’s southern governorate of Babil.

They found their way to Berlin amid widespread looting in Iraq that began a century prior to the U.S. invasion, then disguised under the more publicly acceptable term “excavations.”

After the British invaded Iraq in 1914, the Kingdom of Iraq was formed under the control of a British mandate. Replicating policies found across the British Empire, laws were quickly passed that favored foreign archeologists. In 1924, the Antiquities Law, drafted by British archeologist and writer Gertrude Bell, was passed, permitting artifacts to be exported out of Iraq. The Universities of Chicago, Oxford, and Yale, as well as the British Museum, all benefited from the law as ships loaded with artifacts left the country.

German archeologists had already been excavating Babylonian sites since 1899, funded by the German Oriental Society and led by Robert Koldewey, while the Ottoman administration was preoccupied with maintaining its collapsing empire. Their findings, including pottery ornaments, were smuggled to Berlin disguised in crates of coal. The Ishtar Gate was discovered in 1902, but the excavation paused during World War I, and it was only until Britain—not Iraq—allowed Germany to export their discoveries toward the end of the war in 1917 that the Ishtar Gate found its way to Berlin.

“They did not care about our history,” said Abu Zaynab, a tour guide at the ancient Babylonian site.

Successive Iraqi governments have attempted to repatriate the gate but faced similar responses to other developing countries that have demanded repatriation, including Nigeria with the Benin Bronzes, Greece with the Elgin Marbles, and Egypt with the bust of Nefertiti. Academics, museums, and even some Iraqis have suggested Iraq’s historical treasures would be safer in Germany than in the recently war-torn Iraq. (A controversial statement considering Germany’s not-too-distant past, when the Pergamon Museum was severely damaged in airstrikes during World War II.) Babylon’s archaeological site only came under threat when U.S. and Polish troops used the historical site as a military base during the Iraq War.

“They did not care about our history,” said Abu Zaynab, a lead tour guide at the ancient Babylonian site. “Each time a fighter jet landed or took off, pieces of the historic walls would crumble.”

Indeed, the irreversible damage to Iraq’s heritage from the U.S. invasion has been criticized by various nongovernmental organizations, including RASHID International on behalf of the U.N. special rapporteur in Iraq. Although U.S. troops have not been accused of directly striking historic sites, their lack of due diligence following the invasion clearly facilitated looting and the placement of troops around World Heritage sites amounted to gross negligence.

As an Iraqi, the memory of visiting the gate in the Pergamon Museum in 2018 has stayed with me. Confronted with the beauty of Iraq’s history in Berlin, I was in awe of the structures’ majesty but overwhelmed by a sense of disenchantment: These items belong in Iraq. The disappointment swelled after visiting the dismantled artifacts’ original site in southern Iraq, now replaced by what looks like a middle school art project version of the original. This “Disneyfication” of archeology was constructed by Hussein as part of his efforts to promote nationalism during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Iraqis are often limited to visiting this underwhelming replica only. Although Iraq’s cultural heritage is glorified around the globe, Iraqis themselves are unable to enjoy their ancestors’ heritage. With ongoing stringent visa restrictions, even wealthy Iraqis struggle to travel to Western countries to witness their history while places like the Pergamon Museum continue to capitalize on it, charging almost $14 per visit.


As the issue of decolonizing museums has gained prominence over the last few years—including in Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther—Western museums have fought to save face from growing public resentment. The British Museum, for instance, has organized talks and exhibitions in a campaign to counter the perception that “everything was looted.”

In an attempt to transform its public image, the British Museum claimed in 2018 to have returned eight looted items to Iraq. But unlike the Elgin Marbles, for instance, these pieces were not part of the museum’s own collection and were only placed there after police had seized them from a dealer in London.

The British Museum has fumbled in its other attempts at repatriation. In 2005, it returned a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch transformation mask to Canada—albeit not to First Nation people from whom it was brutally taken—only on a long-term loan. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has similarly mishandled its attempts to decolonize: It said it would return Ethiopian treasures looted from violent British expeditions on the condition those items could be kept in the museum on loan.

Famously, in the 1950s, the British Museum forced Nigeria to purchase a small portion of the Benin Bronzes—a group of sculptures from the 16th to 17th centuries—from its collection to repatriate them, which is ludicrous since they were acquired when British forces invaded Benin City in 1897, massacring locals in a so-called punitive expedition. Calls to repatriate the entire Benin Bronzes persist, and last month, a guild of artists from Benin City offered to donate artwork to the British Museum in exchange for the pieces, which are scattered throughout Western institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The University of Cambridge, meanwhile, handed back one of the Benin Bronzes—a sculpture of a cockerel—just last week. “There were stories told about who we were, and these objects showed our strength, our identity,” an accountant from Benin City who has pushed to have the objects returned told the New York Times.

The same could be said of the Ishtar Gate and other Iraqi artifacts. Iraq remains a country ravaged by sectarian conflict, and the affirmation of a common cultural narrative through a shared past would help reunite a divided nation. Now that Iraq is moving toward relative stability, the promotion of cultural tourism in particular will take the country forward. The return of 17,000 items by the United States represents a step toward achieving this, but it must serve as an example to museums worldwide to take action toward greater repatriation—even for their most “prized” artifacts.

Ahmed Twaij is an independent Middle East analyst and an advisor to the Iraqi nongovernmental organization Sanad for Peacebuilding. He is also a photojournalist and has worked with a number of international humanitarian and human rights organizations. Twitter: @twaiji

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