November Meeting Summary: Preserving the Nimrud Ivories in Iraq

Posted on Dec 20, 2013

Summarized by Natasha Trenear, Conservation Fellow, Anthropology Conservation Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution

The Challenges of Preserving the Nimrud Ivories in Iraq

Presented by Terry Drayman-Weisser, Director of Conservation and Technical Research, Walters Art Museum

Terry Drayman-Weisser outlined some of the conservation challenges facing Iraq and the establishment of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH). Her involvement with the Iraqi cultural heritage community began shortly after the recent Iraq War.

In 2005 the U.S. Department of State sought her advice for the condition and treatment of Iraqi ivory artifacts housed in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. They were carved between the 9th to 7th centuries BCE and are referred to as Nimrud ivories as many were excavated from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

During the recent Iraq war, the Iraq National Museum was heavily looted. Significant pieces of the Museum’s collection were saved, as the Museum’s staff took it upon themselves to hide highly significant pieces from the collection, including the Nimrud ivories, which were hidden for several years in metal boxes. They were however damaged during storage, perhaps due to their exposure to water and high levels of moisture while in storage.

As at the time it was too dangerous to travel to Baghdad, Drayman-Weisser instead hosted two Iraqis working at the Iraq National Museum, as a means of training them in ivory conservation, with the hope that they would then eventually be able to apply their conservation knowledge to the care of the Nimrud ivories. She also then arranged for one of them to return to the US as a special student in conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware program. Unfortunately, his visa was denied and as a result he was unable to pursue his training in Delaware.

In response to the lack of conservation training in Iraq, Drayman-Weisser was asked to assist in establishing a national conservation training institute, the IICAH, along with initial partners from the conservation community, including Debbie Norris from the University of Delaware and Lois Price from the Winterthur Museum. Other specialists from the conservation community who have assisted the IICAH also include Vicki Cassman and Brian Leone from the University of Delaware, Nancy Odegaard from the Arizona State Museum, Brian Rose from the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Timothy Whalen from the Getty Conservation Institute.

The IICAH opened in 2010, with its first two years being funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad. The ICCAH was established in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, home to the world’s oldest continuously occupied citadel. Jessica S. Johnson, who had been at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. She was hired as IICAH’s Academic Director. The Mellon Foundation and the Getty Trust with continued funding from the US Embassy in Baghdad are currently funding the IICAH for another 2 years.  Many international instructors have taught courses at IICAH and Drayman-Weisser has taught ivory preservation there each year since its inception.

To date 149 students have graduated from IICAH courses sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Mellon Foundation and the Getty. All IICAH students are already working in museums and other heritage positions throughout Iraq. Consequently, students are able to directly apply their newly acquired conservation knowledge and skills directly in their home institutions.  Over the last few years, the IICAH has become a special place in Iraq and the students are often photographed, filmed and reported in the local media.