IICAH conservation student practices painting a repair on a ceramic.

Saving Iraq's past

Iraqi Institute teaches museum professionals new skills


8:39 a.m., Jan. 23, 2013--At the Iraqi institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH), 18 museum professionals proudly stepped forward to receive University of Delaware certificates from Abdullah Korsheed, director, and Jessica S. Johnson, academic director, at recent graduation ceremonies in Erbil, Iraq. These Iraqi students, including both introductory and advanced classes, work for museums and antiquities departments throughout Iraq.

The two-year program, managed by UD’s Institute for Global Studies, gives Iraqi museum professionals the opportunity to learn new ways to preserve the rich history and archaeology of Iraq. When they return home, they will help save artifacts such as carved stone sculptures that decorated the palaces of Assyrian kings, and pottery sherds that archaeologists study to understand the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia.

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After years of war and isolation, when many museums were looted or closed, Iraq is experiencing a blossoming of renovated museums and renewed archaeological excavations at ancient sites. UD, a major partner in IICAH, sponsors conservation programs for the dedicated staff who care for these important artifacts. 

The programs are funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center, the Getty Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently commended the success of IICAH in a letter that also congratulated the graduates, saying, “… Their achievement symbolizes the future of Iraq as a diverse and pluralistic nation sharing common values and born of a singular history.”

The Collections Care and Conservation Program is one of three programs at IICAH, which also offers Architectural and Site Conservation and Archeological Site Preservation programs. The three programs teach different facets of cultural heritage preservation and are designed to meet Iraqi needs while maintaining international standards. 

With academic guidance from partners at the University of Delaware, Winterthur Museum, Walters Art Museum, University of Arizona, the Getty Conservation Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, 65 students have completed IICAH Collection Care and Conservation courses since 2009. 

Preserving Iraqi artifacts 

Ten students in IICAH’s introductory program, Preventive Conservation for Museums and Archaeology, spent 30 weeks over the last nine months learning how to better preserve artifacts in their museums, such as Neo-Assyrian ivories, 6,000-year-old ceramics from the Uruk period and traditional textiles from nomadic goat herders.

They learned how copper alloy weapons and tools are made, the skills needed to make pottery and also how all these materials deteriorate. They learned how to clean ancient artifacts without causing damage and to keep artifacts-at-risk safe in storage and on exhibition.

Because of their hard work and dedication, all 10 students in the introductory program were invited to attend the 2013 advanced program, and a new group of 10 introductory students joined them when classes began on Jan. 6.

“IICAH is different from other institutions in Iraq because of the large amount of shared information and how we study different artifacts,” said Mohammed, a top student in the introductory program. “Serious work and commitment distinguishes this institute from others.”

Eight students graduated from the advanced program, Laboratory Conservation for Museums and Archaeology. These students began at IICAH in March 2010 and completed 60 weeks of classes during the last two years. For their last project, they created specialized mounts for ancient figurines at the nearby Erbil Civilizations Museum. 

“The thing I enjoyed most in the Institute is the encouragement of students by the teachers to continue to develop themselves and to help their museums to conserve artifacts as part of our history,” said Hemn, from the Slemani Museum in northern Iraq.  

All of the students in the advanced program received a certificate and 60 hours of Continuing Education credit from UD. They have now returned to museums and government antiquities offices throughout Iraq to put their new skills to work. 

Making a difference in Iraq

Lois Olcott Price, director of conservation at Winterthur and an adjunct faculty member in the UD Department of Art Conservation, chairs the IICAH Advisory Council comprising Iraqi and international experts who guide the academic programs. 

After recent visits with IICAH students, Price commented, “They are bright, curious, engaged, open to change, and clearly committed to gaining as much as possible from their time at the Institute. I believe they gain far more than conservation information because they are exposed to new ways of communicating, solving problems, working with diverse colleagues and interacting with the larger conservation world. They passionately want to return to their home institutions and make a difference.”

The first students graduated from the program in 2009 after taking classes held in a local house. Since then, thanks to the support of the Kurdistan Regional Government, students now study and stay in a renovated building with fully equipped laboratories in the center of Erbil, close to the ancient citadel.

“The University of Delaware, in partnership with Winterthur Museum, has unique access to the resources that make this effort so successful — a great university committed to international engagement and an internationally recognized art conservation department,” Price said. “I’m not sure the Iraqi Institute could have been conceived and nurtured in any other environment — UD is truly making a difference. It matters now and it will matter for generations to come in Iraq and in the U.S.”

For more information about IICAH, contact Jessica S. Johnson, academic director.

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