On Thursday, April 8, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) virtually welcomed Iraqi archeologist and former Iraq Minister of Culture Dr. Abdulameer Al-Hamdani to give a presentation on the significance of Iraqi heritage and culture. Dr. Sean Burrus, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the BCMA, moderated the event.
The presentation marked the museum’s fifth annual lecture made possible by the Yadgar Family Endowment Fund, dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of information about the Assyrian reliefs at the BCMA.
Al-Hamdani began the event by stressing the value of cultivating a unifying national identity in Iraq. He suggested using “Mesopotamian” as an umbrella term that could be used to bridge the gap between diverse ethnic communities living in Iraq.
“It is indeed [important], because we tried decades of armed conflict, and it is time to think about using another way to unify,” Al-Hamdani said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “The decades of war, armed conflict and our country under embargo—I think we’ve had enough. Let’s start a new way, which is finding a platform we could all stand on. We can open dialogue between us, instead of having war and using guns.”
By hosting this talk, the BCMA hoped to inspire dialogue of its own within the campus community.
“The first and foremost goal is education: to learn, to listen, to stay tuned in to the ongoing development around Iraqi cultural heritage,” Burrus said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Iraq has faced many challenges in caring for its cultural heritage over the past four decades. It’s an ongoing saga, and we feel that it is incumbent upon us to stay tuned in to what’s going on, to listen for ways that we can help to collaborate with our colleagues across the world—particularly with our Iraqi colleagues—to support their efforts to care for their cultural heritage.”
The United States is implicated in what is perhaps the most well-known challenge to Iraq in caring for its cultural heritage.
During the 2003 U.S. invasion, the National Museum of Iraq was left unprotected for a span of a few days. What resulted was a devastating loss of over 10,000 culturally significant artifacts. Many of the artifacts have yet to be recovered.
Nevertheless, the tragic loss of Iraqi cultural objects inspired many to act.
“Before 2003, no one said anything about Mesopotamian civilization. But after 2003, clearly, people started visiting archaeological sites, they started caring, making enough campaigns to raise awareness about their importance,” Al-Hamdani said during the event.
In a nation threatened by looting, armed conflict and extremist violence, documenting and acknowledging cultural heritage is of utmost importance. Until Al-Hamdani developed a digital atlas and associated database in 2015, the Iraqi Archaeological Atlas had not been updated since 1971. Moreover, it was very hard to find, and it only included 7,000 archeological sites. By comparison, Al-Hamdani’s updated digital database now includes upwards of 15,000 sites.
“Identifying and safeguarding archeological sites is vital, because if we lose them, then there is no way to get them back,” Al-Hamdani said. “If you lose your car, if you lose your house, there is a way to replace them with the new ones. But if you lose your cultural memory, your legacy, your heritage, your civilization, there is no way to get that back.”
According to Al-Hamdani, the effort to safeguard Iraqi heritage and culture should be international and multi-faceted.
“It’s a global task, protecting Iraqi heritage. Most of the major museums in the U.S. and Europe are already involved, giving them [an] opportunity to study abroad in fellowships, and also raising awareness of the importance of Iraq culture,” Al-Hamdani said. “The Bowdoin Museum of Art can play a major role in that, in terms of educating people on race, and raising awareness of our difficulties.”
Toward the end of the event, Al-Hamdani was asked to describe his motivation to become a champion of Iraqi cultural heritage.
“This is my civilization, my heritage, my culture,” he said. “Our history is what makes us human in the first place. It’s the motivation of humankind. We care about what you inherited not just from our own nation but also from other civilizations.”
“We should support each other in this journey to safeguard cultural heritage,” he added.