Overcoming all of the challenges associated with opening a museum in the city of Basrah, the people of Southern Iraq saw, for the first time in a generation, a former palace of Saddam Hussein turned into an artistic space boasting works from the Hellenistic period to the present day. Combating issues of funding, red tape and communal violence, the museum, in partnership with the British charity Friends of Basrah Museum, has opened one hall to the public displaying rare artefacts that illustrate the history of the oil-rich metropolis by the Arabian Gulf.
“The new Basrah Museum is not yet finished,” says Dr John Curtis, formerly Keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum who was involved as a trustee of the Friends of Basra Museum, set up in 2010 to provide financial, curatorial and project management support to the museum. “About one-third of the gallery space has been opened so far but the creation of this museum in a former palace built by Saddam Hussein is a highly symbolic and significant event. It is the first new museum to be established in this region for a long time, and it promises to be a model museum not just for Basrah, but for the whole of Southern Iraq and even for the wider region.”
In addition to the National Museum of Baghdad, the Basrah Museum will join the ranks of being one of the most important institutions in Iraq for art and culture. Originating in a country that has seen firsthand the evils of dictatorship under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who served as the Iraqi dictator in the palace until overthrown by American forces in 2003, the museum hopes to be a space that transforms the remnants of oppression and tyranny with civilisation and humanity. “The gallery that has opened is about the heritage of Basrah and the region, and it will give the inhabitants of Basrah an opportunity to see and appreciate their long-forgotten local culture after the ravages of many years of war and insurrection,” adds Dr Curtis. “Eventually the museum will showcase Iraqi history, art and cultural heritage from pre-history until the 20th century.”
The museum’s artefacts include precious coins, pottery, and statues that date back to 400 B.C. The city itself was built in 637 A.D. and played an important role in early Islamic history. The antiquities found within the walls of the museum pay homage to the history of Basrah while telling the vivid story of all of its chapters, from ancient times through to the Ottoman Empire and so forth.
Work will continue on the refurbishment of the rest of the museum as it continues to strive towards setting a new artistic standard for the whole country. With facilities for school parties, contents tied to the Iraqi national curriculum and new educational programmes, supported by the British Council, to be introduced in October to local school children, the Basrah Museum is bound to be another feather in the hat of a city so renowned for its education, poetry and music.
One of the three galleries at Basrah Museum opened in September 2016. For more information see friendsofbasrahmuseum.org