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Exhibition of ancient artifacts brings home Iraq's losses


One kind of quintessential New York event became another kind altogether last week at Fifth Avenue's art palace, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The opening of a scholarly exhibition initially geared toward a small but knowing audience suddenly became a timely event replete with scandal and CNN cameras.

For six years, the Met had been planning an exhibit of 5,000-year-old artifacts dug out of the ground mostly in and around Iraq. A Met curator went on a worldwide dragnet looking for such treasures for one blockbuster show. She ended up borrowing from 54 museums as close as Brooklyn and as far away as Damascus. Only Iran and Iraq, which could have provided rare and singular objects, were off-limits because of trade embargoes. Looking back, that restriction seems all the more regrettable.

"Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus" ordinarily would have drawn scholarly applause and excitement by aficionados attending symposiums coinciding with the exhibit. The show was conceived as an educational opportunity, demonstrating how the first cities in Mesopotamia -- the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, now modern Iraq -- influenced the outlying regions. Certainly, fourth-grade history teachers won't let you forget the significance of a place where writing was invented.

Frankly, delicate clay tablets and vases have never been a big draw with the public. As ancient stuff goes, a 6-inch-tall copper demon, cute as he is with curly-toed shoes and a similarly whimsical top hat, just can't compete with a glamorous, muscular king like Tut, or better yet, big, scary mummies. The first cities' art has remained obscure beside the drama of Egyptian art, which comes with a story -- the stuff of horror movies and comedy scripts. Difficult-to-decipher cuneiform script on 1-inch-high tablets, by contrast, seems to hold allure mainly for smugglers and scholars.

But the recent sacking of the Iraqi national museum, which had the greatest trove of archeological and historic artifacts from Mesopotamia, may have changed all that. Nothing like a hot story, preferably a scandal, to generate interest in art.

There is still much confusion about exactly how much was stolen from the Baghdad museum. At least 38 very important pieces are known to be missing, as well as thousands of smaller, less valuable pieces. What is known is that the museum had a peerless collection of sculptures, jewelry and vases as well as 100,000 examples of cuneiform, encrypted seals and clay tablets. The museum was so brutally trashed that even figuring out what is missing is expected to take years.

It was poignant walking around the pristine galleries of the Met last week, examining the 400 artifacts encased in glass and knowing that similar treasures may now lie in pieces on the floor of the Iraqi museum or be hidden in grimy crates in some souk in Jordan. An adorable silver bull wearing a patterned skirt and holding a vase between his little forelegs seemed all the more vulnerable under the protective lights of the gallery.

The exhibition also includes photographs of works known to be missing from the Iraqi museum, including the famous "Iruk Vase," a 3-foot alabaster vessel with carvings that show life in that first city of 40,000. The photograph of the looted vase in this setting makes the loss in Baghdad more real. It's the difference between hearing that someone died and then realizing you actually met the person once.

At a packed press briefing at the Met last Monday, a British Museum official, just back from Baghdad, gave an unsettling account of the ravaged museum, describing sculptures "smashed to smithereens" and thousands of museum files and computer discs thrown in piles, as if ready for burning. Asked how the U.S. military has responded to the destruction of a civilization's remains, the official dryly announced that four U.S. tanks now guard the museum compound.

The Met's aristocratic director, however, was anything but understated. Philippe de Montebello recently has lambasted the Bush administration for neglecting to protect Iraq's cultural patrimony. The "poignancy and tragedy" surrounding his museum's historic exhibit, he said, was "beyond comprehension."

"What we have on display may be the bulk of what survived. Though I hope in time this statement may prove melodramatic."

What remains uncertain is this war's further effect on the world of antiquities. Looking grim as he roamed the Met's grand halls, an official of Syria's ministry of culture, which almost didn't deliver its artifacts to the exhibit because of the war, said: "The good conduct between Syria and U.S. must continue. Even in difficult times."

And so, too, must the parties go on, lest museum donors find themselves with no place to celebrate their philanthropy. That night after the press preview, the fashionable art types along with some sheiks and scholars gathered for a grand party to celebrate the opening of "First Cities." It was held, of all places, in the Temple of Dendur, the Met's famous Egyptian-shrine-turned-disco. The art of Mesopotamia lacks such festive and heroically scaled sights. But the public is likely to warm to it in the coming weeks, nonetheless. The saying goes that life is short and art is long. And the Met's new show reminds us that art, much like life, is delicate, endangered and all too vulnerable to the ravages of war.

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