ISIS Crisis: Archaeologist Pedro Azara, UNESCO, AAMD & AIA on the Mosul Museum Attack UPDATED

In light of news reports that some of the objects seen being smashed by members of ISIS in videos widely circulated yesterday may have been replicas, I have sought clarification from the Metropolitan Museum (which yesterday issued a forceful statement decrying the destruction) and from archaeologist Pedro Azara, who had worked on a dig near Mosul and had described unstable conditions there when I chatted with him in New York two weeks ago at a press preview for an exhibition he co-curated at the Institute for the Study for the Ancient World.

I haven’t yet heard back from the Met [see update at bottom], but Azara, a professor of aesthetics and the theory of art at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, responded immediately.

Pedro Azara Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pedro Azara
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Azara wrote:

A professor living in Baghdad, from Mosul, told me yesterday that most of the material at the Mosul museum had been taken to Baghdad. But there was some discussion about whether some of the material had returned to Mosul. I think Iraqi authorities are keeping most of the items in storerooms that are not always at the National Museum in Iraq.

Some of the statues [smashed by Islamic State members] are obviously copies. They broke very easily, and the interior of them was pure white—plaster while. The fact that a statue had an iron piece would be, on the contrary, a sign that it is genuine. [This contradicts comments by Mark Altaweel of the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, to the UK’s Channel 4 News, who said the presence iron bars meant they were replicas: “The originals don’t have iron bars.”]

The statue must have been found broken and repaired in the 20th century with these irons pieces—as happens with so many classical sculptures—even if these iron pieces are not used any more today. When the statue was pulled down yesterday, it broke following the ancient break.

So I feel that most of the statues were copies: There are many Hatra statues in Iraqi museums that are plaster copies, but not all are. The winged lion must be the only original that remains—or remained—on the spot.

Destruction of this kind has always taken place. We have just to remember the destruction during the civil war in Spain, when churches and cathedrals were almost demolished.

But this is no excuse.

After I posted about the Mosul Museum yesterday, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) issued a joint statement “call[ing] on authorities, even in these unsettled times, to do what they can to protect the world’s archaeological and cultural materials.”

The statement continued:

We urge museums and archaeological communities around the world to alert the appropriate international authorities if they believe they have information regarding objects recently stolen from Mosul. While the full extent of the damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage will only become clear after greater stability is restored, the material culture from more than 5,000 years of history is under extremely serious threat and we must take immediate action.

In addition, UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, yesterday issued a strongly worded statement:

This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy. This is also a security issue, as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq…. I have immediately seized the president of the Security Council to ask him to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage as an integral element for the country’s security.

UPDATE: Here’s what a spokesperson from the Met has now told me:

It’s impossible to know from videos [whether the destroyed objects are originals]. Our curators say that some are unquestionably authentic, not casts.

Metropolitan Museum Decries “Catastrophic Destruction” of Mosul Museum’s Collection

Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, was among those sickened by the videos released today by Islamic State (to which I shall not link) showing militants smashing archaeological artifacts (which they regard as forms of idolatry) from Iraq’s Mosul Museum.

The museum was also looted during the 2003 Iraq war.

The Mosul Museum

The Mosul Museum

Here in full is Campbell’s statement, issued this afternoon, regarding this deplorable destruction:

Speaking with great sadness on behalf of the Metropolitan, a museum whose collection proudly protects and displays [emphasis added] the arts of ancient and Islamic Mesopotamia, we strongly condemn this act of catastrophic destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle East.

The Mosul Museum’s collection covers the entire range of civilization in the region, with outstanding sculptures from royal cities such as Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatra in northern Iraq. This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding. Such wanton brutality must stop, before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated.

In an NPR segment last July, Christopher Dickey, foreign editor of the Daily Beast, described the importance of the holdings of the Mosul Museum, which was then under Islamic State’s control:

What’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men—Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians but that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially.

And then we’ve also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it’s a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS….

What is in the museum in Mosul has not been destroyed, not yet. But the people who are occupying the museum were very explicit and said we are just waiting for the orders when to do it.

Now they’ve done it. We had months of warning. Are we powerless to arrest the ruthless destruction of world heritage and, more importantly, of innocent lives?

As it happened, I chatted two weeks ago with Pedro Azara, professor of aesthetics and the theory of art at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, who had been working on an archaeological dig at a Neo-Assyrian site near Mosul, in the area now occupied by Islamic State. He was at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, as co-curator of an exhibition of ancient Mesopotamian objects (including a standing male figure loaned by the Met), juxtaposed with modern and contemporary works inspired by them.

Jennifer Chi, director of exhibitions & chief curator of Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, with Pedro Azara Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pedro Azara, right, with Jennifer Chi, director of exhibitions & chief curator of Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Azara told me that “apparently there is no visible damage” to the archaeological site where he had worked. “But you cannot go there. You cannot stay near the site because it is too dangerous, because it is too near Mosul.”

Pedro added:

We thought they [the occupiers] would have begun to dig in search of objects [to be converted to cash]. The good thing is that Islamic State stayed for only 10 days on the site, so we suppose that not too much damage could have been produced. You have to dig a lot to get to the Neo-Assyrian strata. So we hope that nothing important has happened.

But we don’t know.

“Crucifixion” Conservation: Cleveland Museum’s Time-Ravaged Caravaggio (with video)

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the Cleveland Museum’s great Caravaggio, “The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew,” 1606-1607, was recently used as a bargaining chip by that institution’s previous director, David Franklin, to salvage a nearly sabotaged show of antiquities loaned from Sicily.

"The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew," 1606-1607 Photo courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art

Caravaggio, “The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew,” 1606-1607
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art

But that proposed loan to Sicily was subsequently scrapped (or at least postponed) when Cleveland suddenly decided, after Franklin’s departure, that “Saint Andrew” was not fit to travel and needed extensive conservation work at home. (Nevertheless, the Sicily show did proceed as planned.)

While in Cleveland last week, I paid a visit to “Saint Andrew” in the conservation studio. It was a sorry sight: Stripped bare of all previous restorations, its significant losses and damage (to be repaired) were painfully exposed:

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum

Now come join me and “Saint Andrew” in the museum’s conservation studio, where Per Knutås, the museum’s chief conservator, explains what’s been done to the painting, the nature of its losses (including a lost piece of canvas), what treatment is planned, and whether this masterpiece may eventually be deemed fit to travel (perhaps after a triumphant return to Cleveland’s galleries, in time for next year’s centennial celebration):

From “Griddle Griswold” to “Twister Griswold”: New Outreach by Cleveland Museum’s Playful Director (with video)

The ebullient, always welcoming William Griswold is a ubiquitous presence at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he assumed the directorship in May. After hearing him introduce two scholarly lectures related to the museum’s exhibition program…

William Griswold Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

William Griswold
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…I kept seeing Bill popping up around the premises, engaging with visitors and staff at every turn. During the time that he set aside for me, which included a wide-ranging conversation over lunch at a corner table of the museum’s public restaurant, he made it a point to address a complaint in my previous post:

The cavernous Rafael Viñoly-designed atrium still remains unappealingly barren, save for a little bamboo grove at one end…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…but Griswold has ambitious (although still amorphous) proposals for this vast expanse: art hanging from the ceiling (shades of Xu Bing‘s “Phoenix,” as installed at MASS MoCA), a performance series, or possibly an architectural intervention, in the manner of the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur. (He mentioned a Frank Lloyd Wright house as an appealing option—shades of Crystal Bridges?)

Whatever the eventual enhancements, most of the floor space will need to remain available for functions like this:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Because of my focus on mainstream-media commitments, I only managed to issue a few tweets about my free-time wanderings among the museum’s world-class holdings:


The last sculpture and two fragments, which have been the subject of provenance-related controversies, were off view for lab testing and study when I visited last October. The museum’s conservators determined that the body and the detached hand and reptile (now identified by Cleveland as a python, not a lizard) were all part of the same ancient sculpture, attributed to Praxiteles. The base, however, may have been added much later, as “a recasting or a repurposed part of the larger, original sculptural assemblage,” according to the label.

But let’s return now to the atrium, to see the popular touch for which Griswold became (in)famous at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where I had caught in him the act of flipping pancakes at the institution’s community breakfast during his directorship there (before his move to the Morgan Library and Museum):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Bill’s Midwest community-outreach efforts, for which I had dubbed him “Griddle Griswold,” have now assumed a new twist in Cleveland, where his outreach has become much more literal. See him “reaching out” with his long arms and legs, shamelessly out-maneuvering his shorter competitors in a game of Museum Twister on Family Game Night:

I feel compelled to give Bill a new name. From henceforth: Twister Griswold.

Cleaving to Cleveland: Where I’ll Be on My Winter Workation

It’s not quite cold and snowy enough here in New Jersey, so I think I’ll go on a workation to Cleveland, where the temperature tomorrow night is predicted by the National Weather Service to -11 °F (not counting the wind chill). Here it will be a toasty 0 °F. (Where’s global warming when we really need it?)

I’ll get to catch up with my old friend Bill Griswold, now ensconced as director of the third museum where he plans to stay forever. I guess it’s too soon to flit to Boston. But what if the National Gallery directorship eventually becomes available?

Let’s not go there. What I’m hoping to discover this week is that he’s enlivened the barren Rafael Viñoly-designed atrium at the Cleveland Museum of Art with some art (as he had done with Renzo Piano‘s atrium at the Morgan Library and Museum, where he also oversaw a restoration of J.P. Morgan’s original 1906 Italianate marble villa).

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Cleveland Museum’s atrium in October 2014
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I’m practicing my facial expressions, in the hope of getting a more appealing (or at least more gender-correct) match for my physiognomy than the one I managed to elicit in the Cleveland Museum’s interactive extravaganza, Gallery One, where I briefly touched down in October:


I should probably take a tip from Griswold (although I think I might tear a knee ligament):


Speaking of technological trauma: I regret to inform you that your notes via my Contact link haven’t gotten through to me for almost two months. That’s now (I hope) been fixed by ArtsJournal‘s tech wizards. So if you tried, please do try again.

Blogging will likely have to await my return. Sporadic tweeting @CultureGrrl may continue.

Now where’s my thermal underwear?