Conservation students at the Iraqi Institute learn to excavate fragile materials.

Protecting Iraq's heritage

Institute trains museum professionals to preserve cultural treasures


9:51 a.m., April 18, 2011--An ambitious program to teach museum professionals in Iraq the best methods of preserving their nation’s cultural heritage collections and archaeological sites will continue and expand thanks to a grant received by the University of Delaware.

Working with American and Iraqi partners, the University will be the lead institution in administering the $500,000 grant from the U.S. State Department to finance the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, a city in northern Iraq. With initial funding from a U.S. Embassy grant, the institute began training Iraqi museum and preservation professionals in October 2009.

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Since then, the University, Winterthur Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore have worked with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to create academic programs, with classes taught by permanent and visiting faculty from UD and other institutions. The institute facility, renovated by the Kurdish Regional Government, includes laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and a library has been developed. Basic courses in conservation and historic preservation, lasting four to six months, have trained 34 heritage professionals, and another 22 professionals have completed shorter courses. Participants receive a UD certificate of study.

“The student body includes men and women, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shia, all united by the common goal of preserving their shared heritage,” says Debra Hess Norris, Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts and chair of UD’s Department of Art Conservation, who helped spearhead plans for the Iraqi Institute.

“This is a superb example of Iraqis and Americans working together in a very positive, productive and powerful way.”

Iraqi museums have generally operated as storehouses for objects that are rarely on view to the public, rather than emphasizing education and outreach as American institutions do, says Vicki Cassman, assistant professor of art conservation at UD, who has taught at the institute in Erbil. She says the institute seeks to change that emphasis while also helping Iraqi professionals build international connections with colleagues.

Classes will cover such topics as the scientific and analytical methods used in preservation; preventive conservation practices; the stabilization, treatment, display and storage of collections; emergency recovery and risk management; architectural preservation; and archaeology. Students take part in practical, hands-on exercises and also visit area museums to assess their operations.

The new State Department grant will enable the institute to continue and expand its academic training, with a long-term goal of sustainability under Iraqi leadership and management, according to the proposal that was approved. The funding also will support a U.S. academic director, visiting lecturers and the establishment of a U.S.-Iraq Advisory Council.

“The Institute of Global Studies at UD [which will administer the project] was pleased to partner with our colleagues in art conservation in securing this award and looks forward to assisting in implementing such an important program,” said Lesa Griffiths, associate provost for international programs.

The University of Arizona will join UD, Winterthur and the Walters in the next phase of the institute, working in partnership with the institute’s director and its board.

For more on UD’s work in the Middle East, see the related UDaily article.

Article by Ann Manser

Photos courtesy of Jessica C. Johnson


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