8:55 a.m., Sept. 1, 2010----Vicki Cassman is accustomed to teaching prospective museum professionals at the University of Delaware the skills they will need in caring for collections, but she recently provided her expertise to a class of students in a very different setting -- Iraq.
Cassman, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the University's Department of Art Conservation, taught an intensive two-week course this summer at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, part of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. The institute was established as one element of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project (ICHP), a $13.9 million U.S. government-funded program to expand and enhance local capacity in the field of archaeological conservation and preservation. ICHP has three goals: the renovation of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad; the establishment of a cultural heritage preservation/conservation institute in Erbil; and capacity building for Iraqi cultural heritage specialists. The institute in Erbil began training Iraqi heritage professionals in October 2009.
The institute is currently managed by International Relief and Development (IRD), a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, under the auspices of ICHP. IRD works closely with the country's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage on efforts to improve Iraq's capability to preserve its significant cultural heritage collections and archaeological sites. As part of IRD's commitment, a transition is under way for an Iraqi Board of Directors to assume complete responsibility for the management of the Erbil institute next year.
“All of my students at the institute are museum professionals, but they're working in institutions that are not what we think of as museums,” Cassman said. Instead of emphasizing education and outreach, as most American museums do, Iraqi museums have primarily served as safe storehouses for valuable collections, which may be viewed by the public only occasionally, she said. The institute seeks to change that emphasis and also to help Iraqi museum professionals build more professional connections among themselves and with others internationally.
Cassman's class included students from various parts of Iraq and from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, but she said they formed close professional ties as they studied and worked together in the classroom, in laboratories at the institute and while doing fieldwork at various sites. “The unity in the group was just wonderful,” she said. “And what's great is that former students return for visits, advice and comradery, so there will be a real professional network now.”
Her class covered such topics as preventing light or insects from damaging collections, storing items properly to preserve and protect them, using spot-tests for materials and assessing the needs of museums. In all cases, Cassman said, she often had to adapt her teaching to the local conditions, including emphasizing hands-on practical experiences over classroom lectures because of some students' lack of English language skills. In another case, she realized that the technique of placing infested materials in a freezer to kill the insects wouldn't work in a country where the supply of electricity is often intermittent, so her students learned instead to place infested items in bags and use the sun's heat to achieve the same result.
Together with Jessica Johnson, director of the Conservation Program at the institute, Cassman and the students visited some local museums to write reports assessing them, devised emergency preparedness plans and began to think about mission statements for their home institutions and carried out other practical tasks. Cassman's two-week module was one of several the students will complete over a six-month period.
When the institute first opened, Brian Michael Lione, the institute's project coordinator for IRD, said more books and supplies were needed. “But the most important part -- the students -- [are] on hand, excited about being the inaugural class and eager to learn,” he wrote in an email thanking the partners in the project.
The institute's U.S. partners are excited, too, according to Debra Hess Norris, Henry Francis du Pont Chair of Fine Arts and chairperson of UD's art conservation department, who called the institute “an exceptional opportunity to assist Iraqis in the preservation of their cultural heritage.”
“It has been an honor and privilege for the University of Delaware to participate, and we are inspired to be part of the team,” Norris said. “Not only have we begun laying the foundation for a longer-term, sustainable program for professionals, but the program also will promote public engagement in shared cultural heritage and provide opportunities for students from Iraq's universities and beyond.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Lione