JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 11 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 11 (pp. to )



ABSTRACT—ABSTRACT—In the course of the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq from 1990 to 1991, the collections housed in the National Museum were removed to Iraq. These artifacts were made up of the National Museum's own collection of archaeology and ethnography, and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (the Sabah Collection of Islamic Art), a private collection on loan to the state. This article details the recovery of the collections as part of the United Nations program of restitution after the liberation of Kuwait. Preparations for recovery, the recovery operation itself, and lessons learned from the experience are described from the point of view of the conservator involved.

TITRE—Le recouvrement en Irak des collections du Mus�e national du Kowe�t: une �valuation de l'op�ration et des le�ons tir�es. R�SUM�—Au cours de l'occupation du Kowe�t par l'Irak, de 1990 � 1991, les collections du Mus�e national furent transport�es en Irak. Ces objets comprenaient la collection m�me du Mus�e national d'arch�ologie et d'ethnographie, ainsi que le Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (la collection Sabah d'art islamique), une collection priv�e qui avait �t� pr�t�e � l'�tat. Cet article d�crit l'op�ration de recouvrement des collections en tant qu'�l�ment du programme de restitution de l'Organisation des Nations Unies, apr�s la lib�ration du Kowe�t. Les pr�paratifs, l'op�ration de recouvrement elle-m�me et les le�ons tir�es de l'exp�rience sont d�crites du point de vue de la restauratrice qui fut impliqu�e dans le projet.

TITULO—La recuperacion de las colecciones del Museo Nacional de Kuwait que estaban en poder de Irak: una evaluacion de la Operacion, y las lecciones aprendidas. RESUMEN—En el curso de la ocupaci�n de Kuwait por Irak de 1990 a 1991, las colecciones alojadas en el Museo Nacional fueron llevadas a Irak. Estos artefactos inclu�an la propia colecci�n de arqueolog�a y etnografia del Museo Nacional y Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (la coleccion Sabah de Arte Islamico), una coleccion privada prestada al estado. Este articulo detalla la recuperaci�n de las colecciones como parte del programa de restituci�n de las Naciones Unidas despues de la liberaci�n de Kuwait. Se describen los preparativos para la recuperaci�n, la operaci�n de recuperaci�n misma, y las lecciones aprendidas en esta experiencia, desde el punto de vista del conservador a cargo.


In 1990, at the time of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the Kuwait National Museum housed two collections: the national archaeological and ethnographic museum and the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, otherwise known as the Sabah Collection of Islamic Art. The two collections functioned quite separately, each with its own staff and in separate buildings.

In 1988, I had been invited to go to Kuwait to work as the conservator for Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, the arrangement being that I would spend three to four months of the year there, set up a laboratory, and manage the conservation of the collection. There had been no conservation input into the collection in Kuwait until then, and Dar al-Athar, housing some 3,000 objects, had been open since 1983.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, amassed from all over the Islamic world and spanning the 8th–18th centuries, is owned by a couple who are both members of Kuwait's ruling family, Sheikh Nasser al-Ahmed al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah al-Salem al-Sabah, and it had been put on long loan to the state so that it could be exhibited. Both felt that, with most of the great collections of Islamic art housed in museums in the West, it was time that one be on view in the Arab world. The collection at that time was rated among the top six Islamic art collections on public display anywhere in the world. Sheikha Hussah was, and still is, the director of the museum.

I was in Kuwait in July and August 1990 to oversee the packing of a traveling exhibition that was being sent to Russia and on around the world, and was made up of 114 of the most important objects from the collection.

Although it seems strange in retrospect, in July 1990 most people in Kuwait refused to see an invasion as a possibility. Saddam Hussein's regime had postured and threatened before, and the disagreements of that summer over oil rights and prices were certainly not expected to result in war. At the end of July 1990, therefore, with tens of thousands of Iraqi troops gathering on the border, there was no alarm. Many of the country's decision makers were out of the country for the duration of the hot summer months.

The invasion took place in the early hours of August 2 and, apart from fighting in the north of the city on the first day, was strangely quiet. It later became apparent that it was also carefully planned in many respects. On the first day, guards were posted on all institutions that the Iraqi government wanted to reserve for its own uses, to prevent looting. One of these was the National Museum. As the invasion occurred in the early hours, by the time we were awake on August 2 it was already too late to rescue anything from the museum. One of the Kuwaiti staff of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah went to the museum a few days later, posing as an interested student, and was asked if she knew where any of the keys were, so at least it was clear that the Iraqis had not yet forced an entrance.

In September, six weeks after the invasion, there was news that trucks had been seen outside the museum, and it was speculated that the collections were being moved north to Iraq. This proved to be the case. In the intervening five months before the liberation of the country, nothing reliable was heard about the collection's whereabouts.

I had been due to fly out of Kuwait on what proved to be the day of the invasion, and finally got out a month later, when the Iraqi government permitted Western women and children to leave the country. The collection traveling to Russia had also left the country—just in time—and went on to several venues in the United States during 1990–91, with the unexpected role of being an ambassador for the cause of Kuwait.


2.1 2.1 The objects

2.1.1 2.1.1 Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah

At the time of the invasion, approximately 900 objects were on display and 2,000 were in storage in Dar al-Athar. There was also a library of books, modern and antiquarian, on Islamic art and the Islamic world. The collection and library were housed in a large modern building designed to lead the visitor through 10 interconnecting galleries around a spectacular central atrium in which hung the largest carpets. The objects were presented by period, from pre-Islamic through to Mughal India. The building was spacious and the display attractive. However, there had been little or no conservation input into the original design of the storage or display, and when I arrived, a survey of these aspects was one of the first priorities.

Generally, the objects themselves were in good condition. Most had been bought at auction in London and, as is often the case, had been restored beforehand. The museum had an office in London and any conservation or restoration of objects needed after acquisition had, until my arrival, been contracted out to various conservators in Britain. Objects not covered by my training as an archaeological conservator, such as manuscripts or rugs, continued to be treated in London, but I was, of course, responsible for maintaining them in the best possible conditions while they were in Kuwait.

The problems lay mainly in the fact that some of these objects, once in good condition, were in danger of deteriorating due to poor display, storage, or handling.

At my request, I was allowed to take down large palace carpets that had been hanging in the atrium for seven years. These had each been hung simply by one strip of Velcro on a wooden batten. Most were hung lengthways, which was eye-catching but hard on the carpets! Much smaller carpets were mounted onto calico backings stretched over frames, to provide a temporary display. It was a credit to the sheikha that she was willing to put up with these tiny replacements in her beautiful atrium. A proposal was accepted to bring a textile conservator to Kuwait to design and implement a better system for mounting the large carpets, but it was agreed that they could “rest” meanwhile. We cleaned them lightly and rolled them onto large tubes for temporary storage, covered with sturdy calico against the prevalent dust of Kuwait.

Storage was redesigned, particularly for some of the more vulnerable objects, namely the wood, textiles, and carpets. Because of the lack of relative humidity control or dust filtration in the museum, all wooden objects were lightly cleaned and packed in acid-free tissue and loosely sealed polythene. All fragile wooden objects, such as a large collection of long architectural panels from Mughal India, were packed on carrying boards or trays made to size.

Textiles and carpets that had been lying uncovered on the store floor were rolled and racked, with thick calico protective covers. A large collection of medieval textile fragments from Fustat had already been mounted at the Metropolitan Museum in Perspex cases, all with their own slipcovers.

Because of this work on the stores, and because so many of the carpets that should have been on display happened to be on rollers in storage, most of the textile and wood objects were to travel relatively well. The objects that were to suffer worst were some of those that were on display and then were difficult to pack well.

2.1.2 2.1.2 The National Museum

The National Museum did not have trained conservators on staff, so less of this work was done. However, the collection proved to be less fragile. Much of it was made up of archaeological material, mainly pottery sherds and very small objects, which were not especially fragile. There was also a very large amount of quite modern ethnographic material, which on the whole was fairly sound and sturdy.

2.2 2.2 Documentation of the collections before the invasion

Before the war, neither Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah nor the National Museum had computerized its documentation of the collections. This situation was to have profound implications for the recovery program, particularly in the case of the National Museum.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah's main archives of documents and photographs were in Kuwait, but there was a secondary archive in London. It would be good to be able to say that this arrangement was a result of efficient disaster planning, but in fact it was circumstance. Much of the collection having been bought in the auction houses of Europe, the financial paperwork was done in the collection's London office. Objects also were photographed professionally in London before being dispatched to Kuwait. Other information was gathered for the inventory by contacting everyone who had worked with the collection (curators, academics, volunteers, staff, auction rooms, and so on) to ask for any extra details or photographs. As a result, an inventory with photographs could be produced by the London office.

By Christmas 1990 the inventory had been put together, with as many photographs as possible, to give to Interpol and the United Nations. It was, however, quite rudimentary, not absolutely complete even though the collection comprised only 3,000 objects, and it had cost a great deal of effort. The need for efficient computerization in the future became very apparent.

Kuwait National Museum's archives were all in the museum, teaching us one of the most painful lessons learned in the invasion. Because the National Museum had no records outside Kuwait, or indeed at another site inside Kuwait, it could not assemble an inventory for Interpol or as a basis for the recovery operation in Baghdad.


The disappearance of the National Museum and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collections was not, on the whole, the result of random looting, and this situation was to be one of the most significant factors in their recovery. When they were ready to do so, the Iraqis sent staff from their Department of Antiquities to assess and pack what they wanted from the two collections. They took the whole of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and approximately 60–70% of the National Museum collection, leaving behind much of the larger modern ethnographic material. It transpired later that the Iraqis involved had been working under a deadline imposed by the army and did not have time to take everything. They were methodical enough, however, to take all documentation for both collections.

Dar al-Athar numbered some 3,000 objects of varied media and an Islamic art and history library of some 3,000 books. The National Museum was more difficult to quantify. At the time of the recovery operation the director estimated the material in Iraq at about 26,000 objects. In the end there proved to be more than 40,000. The National Museum Library numbered approximately 15,000–20,000 books.


The liberation of Kuwait took place in January 1991, six months after the invasion. The return of the collections occurred in September–October 1991, after the UN's establishment of a presence in Iraq. It was thanks to the work of the UN that the collections were traced, and it was the UN that established the understanding with Iraq that the collections would be returned. This arrangement was part of a much larger restitution program, to include gold bullion taken from the central bank, the National Archives, the two museum collections, civil aviation, and major equipment, in that order. The UN formed an agency for this purpose, called UN Return of Property (UNROP), and the staff of the two collections were asked to form teams to go to Iraq for the handover. The two teams agreed to employ the same professional packers to provide materials and travel to Baghdad, and this aspect was to be organized by the head of the Dar al-Athar team.

The UN then arranged permission for two members of the Dar al-Athar team to go to Baghdad ahead of the handover to assess how much of the two collections was there and therefore how much packing material would be needed. There were real fears as to what they would find: newspapers by now had been reporting that jeweled Mughal daggers and illuminated Qur'ans from Dar al-Athar had been given by Saddam to his generals as rewards for their part in the war. It seemed a miracle that anything had been found at all.

The news was good. The sheer bulk of material that the staff found in the galleries of the Iraq museum, although mostly still packed and therefore hard to examine, was encouraging. This visit was one of the most important factors in the subsequent smooth running of the recovery operation. Although in the end the team members were allowed only three hours to make their assessment, in that time all the largest objects were measured for crates, the volume of the library books (found stacked in heaps on the floor) was calculated roughly by measurement, and the number of trunks and boxes of objects was counted. From these figures, it was possible to make an estimate, albeit very rough, of the amounts of packing materials needed.

After the brief visit to Baghdad to assess how much of the collections was there, plans were made by the company of professional art shippers appointed to accompany us to Baghdad, in consultation with Katie Marsh, the head of the recovery team, and me. Seven tons of packing materials were flown to Kuwait, including the numerous crates made to size for the largest objects. A large margin of safety was added in calculating the loose packing materials (tissue, corrugated paper, cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, etc.), in case of error. Almost all of it was used, in fact, because the National Museum collection proved to be much larger than had been indicated. Other supplies taken were trolleys, lifting gear, industrial stacking trays, stationery, first aid kit, even large supplies of coffee and a coffee maker.


By now it was early summer. The two teams were given a rough time frame for the mission and asked to be on standby to go sometime in the autumn. The UN could not foretell how quickly the first recovery operations (gold bullion and the National Archives) would be finished, and therefore we would simply have to go when they were completed.

In the end, the whole operation was carried out by the Dar al-Athar team, as the National Museum team was withdrawn shortly before departure. They were all Kuwaitis, and politically it was deemed to be too sensitive to send Kuwaitis into Iraq so soon after the war. We therefore found ourselves going to Baghdad to check and receive a second collection with which we were not familiar, and for which we had no inventory. This situation had mixed consequences, which will be mentioned later.

The Dar al-Athar team was made up of an administrator (as head of delegation), two curators, a conservator (myself), an objects photographer, and four professional packers from an art shipping company used regularly by Dar al-Athar. The members were all British or American. There was no political reason for the nationalities of the team: these people were chosen only because they had had the most experience in working with the collection.

Back in Kuwait, two other members of staff handled the shipments of objects as they were gradually shuttled down in the UN cargo plane. The National Museum had prepared storage space for both the collections in one of its buildings that had not been damaged during the occupation.

5.1 5.1 Recovery: The handover process

The handover process was carried out in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the collections having been brought there from wherever they had been stored during the occupation of Kuwait—possibly near Mosul in the north of Iraq. It was organized and run by the UNROP staff, who oversaw the unpacking of all the material by the Iraqi delegation and the handover to the Kuwait delegation, item by item. The three teams sat at a horseshoe formation of tables, with the UN team between the other two. Each item had to be identified and its condition noted for the computer records made by the UNROP staff, which became the formal handover documents signed by the three heads of delegation. There would be a break for the signing of handover documents every few hours. Objects could then be photographed and packed.

A large room in the museum had been designated “Kuwaiti territory” (a curious concept, after the events of the last year), and no Iraqis were allowed in this room. Once objects were handed over officially to the Kuwait delegation, they went first to the photographer and then into this room, where the packers worked. This room was also the one place in the museum where the rather charged atmosphere of the handover was absent, and it was therefore a welcome haven.

Crates were flown down to Kuwait in batches of 2–7 tons at a time, when space was available on the UN cargo plane. The UN plane was not permitted to fly from the airport in Baghdad, and so shipments had to be taken out to Habaniyah air base, two to three hours outside Baghdad.

The handover took 6 weeks, working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. The UN had wanted it done in a shorter time because of fears that the political situation would deteriorate, but that was not physically possible. Fortunately the fears were not confirmed, at least not to the degree that the recovery operation was halted. The total amount reclaimed was some 50,000 objects and 20,000 books, forming 50 tons of cargo weight.

5.2 5.2 Problems encountered during the handover

5.2.1 5.2.1 The Political Situation

From the time of our arrival we were warned by the UN that it might not be safe for us to go out on the streets of Baghdad without an armed escort. Thus, at the beginning at least, we were confined to the hotel for the few free hours when we were not either working or sleeping. This situation became quite oppressive. We were also warned that our rooms were bugged and that therefore we should take care in discussing the operation there. Partway into the operation, some of us decided to risk the streets and venture out occasionally in the evenings. To our surprise and pleasure, we found that we were treated very hospitably, but we feared the hospitable attitude would cease.

Although the general populace was mainly friendly, the government was intent on raising tensions. The UN staff did not tell us until the worst was over, but at one stage they had begun to fear that there would be government-instigated riots aimed against the UN's activities in Iraq. They had begun moving supplies and a shortwave radio into the museum in case we had to barricade ourselves in the building rather than returning to the hotel, which would be an obvious target. Fortunately, the riots did not materialize. One of the UN vehicles had abusive graffiti spray-painted on it, but we saw no other direct hostility outside the museum.

The six-week recovery operation itself, however, did prove to be quite stressful. In any such operation, political tensions are likely to be present among the individuals, animosities may come to the surface, and circumstances may change dramatically. The Iraqis could have called off the handover at any time, so it was of great importance that everyone stay calm. As conservator, I was in the unpleasant situation of being the person to declare when and to what extent objects had been damaged, and I often found myself in the center of heated disagreement from the opposite side. It was important to prepare before each handover session so that all evidence was at hand and statements were carefully worded.

In the Iraq Museum, relations between the two teams were very stilted at first. Neither team knew the other, and we could only guess at the feelings and political orientations of the Iraqis working opposite us. It was hard to be objective and ignore the fact that they represented, at least nominally, the Iraqi regime that had invaded Kuwait, but it was crucial to do so. By the end of the first week, as each team realized that the other was willing to be neutral, the frost began to thaw. Cautious banter began across the tables; individual characters emerged. When flowers appeared on our table one morning, we knew they had decided they could work with us. In the course of discussions, it had come out that both Dar al-Athar's curator, Manuel Keene, and I had been in Kuwait during the invasion, and that I had been put into an internment camp. The Iraqi staff were also to find out that our museum had been torched after the collection was removed, the fire taking with it a pair of magnificent 14th-century Moroccan doors that were too big to move to Baghdad. They had not known of this event. The fact that despite these and all the other factors we were not only willing but determined to conduct the handover neutrally and professionally had, I feel, a profound calming influence on the whole operation.

At no time, however, could the Iraqis completely relax. Even we, as outsiders, had spotted the two supposed museum staff always in the background, never apparently doing anything. They were members of the Muhabarat, the security police, and they were there to watch the Iraqis as much as to watch us.

5.2.2 5.2.2 Identifying the Objects

The greatest problem to face us during the recovery operation, however, was simply identifying objects. The archaeological collections were the worst culprits. Hundreds of objects or boxes of objects had no numbers, or by now had meaningless labels or only their excavation numbers. These numbers are unique to each excavation and were almost impossible to use for handover purposes. All should have been registered as museum objects using the museum numbering system, but this procedure had often not been followed.

There was another complication in the business of identifying objects. When the collections had first arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqis had made their own inventory. Many of the objects in the Dar al-Athar collection had previously belonged to other collections, and it is the museum's policy to keep the old numbers or identifying marks of these collections alongside ours. Not knowing the numbering systems of the Kuwaiti collections, the Iraqis had recorded numbers at random: sometimes ours, sometimes old ones. Also, the staff compiling the inventory had little experience with Islamic objects, and these were frequently misidentified. The Iraq Museum staff involved in the handover were required to use this inventory, which they themselves had apparently not seen before. A translation from Arabic to English, made for our team by the UN, we suspected, had, through no fault of the UN, made things yet more obscure. The confusion was spectacular at times, and required much patience and good humor on both sides to untangle, as the Iraqis had to match every item on their almost incomprehensible inventory to one of our objects.

Even when the National Museum's ledgers and card catalogs were found in Baghdad, the system was so cumbersome, complicated, and incomplete that it was almost unusable in the very short time available. We used it as far as we could, but in the end we could only collect and thoroughly record what the Iraqis handed over. Ideally it should have been possible to assess losses and ask for missing objects while in Baghdad, but these steps had to wait until the collection was back in Kuwait and could be checked fully by its own staff.


6.1 6.1 Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah had all but 61 objects back, but its building was rendered unusable, having been torched by the Iraqi army during the retreat from Kuwait.

The losses fall into two categories. Whereas the collections in the museum were taken and put in “safekeeping” by the state of Iraq, the royal residences had, it seems, been allocated to the Republican Guard as booty, and most of the museum items lost from Dar al-Athar's collection were taken from Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussah's home.

(1) The museum: The main loss from inside the museum was the pair of 14th-century Moroccan wooden doors, 3.5 m tall. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities staff had been unable to move them, and they were burned with the museum several months later. The metal fittings were found in the ashes. The doors were among the collection's great pieces. Although losses from Dar al-Athar were relatively few, they were quite serious.

A large proportion of the objects that were to suffer the most dramatic damage were those on display, which had no ready-made packaging or supports. Large stone and stucco objects fared particularly badly. The Iraqis were able to pack smaller objects with paper in tin trunks, but larger objects received little or no protection. The one large rug still out on display, a 17th-century medallion Ushak carpet, was rolled on itself, folded twice, and then trussed tightly with rope for the trip to Iraq in an open truck.

(2) The residence: None of the museum objects lost from the residence, which varied from carpets to carved Mughal emeralds, were to be found among the material in Baghdad. Having been taken by the Republican Guard, they were dispersed privately. Only one object, a dagger, has subsequently been recovered. It appeared on the market in Beirut.

6.2 6.2 The National Museum

The National Museum has not at the time of writing produced exact figures, but estimates that it has lost 20–30% of its collection. One of its three buildings and its planetarium were also burned out. It would seem very likely that most of the losses resulted, strangely, from the fact that the Iraqis did not take all of the collection away, so that large quantities of the more modern ethnographic material were left behind. It seems that this material may have been randomly looted. It is also possible that archaeological material went astray in Iraq. The Dar al-Athar collection seemed to be of less interest to the staff sent to get the collections, who were mainly archaeologists. The main damage to the National Museum collection was to large archaeological ceramics, which did not travel well.

Less immediately identifiable was the inevitable deterioration inflicted on vulnerable materials such as textiles and manuscripts by the intense heat during the moves from Kuwait to Baghdad, and to Mosul and back again. It seems that the collection traveled by open trucks, and temperatures in the sun in September are likely to have reached at least 50�C. The temperature inside the tin trunks used to transport many of the smaller objects may have reached 80�C. Resin and adhesive restorations that had sagged in transit attested to the heat. Serious damage (i.e., either irreparable or necessitating major restoration work) to both of the collections, however, averaged less than 10%.


Here is a summary of the lessons we learned.

7.1 7.1 The condition of the collections BEFORE THE Invasion

  1. The experience was a lesson in the importance of having a museum's stores in very good order. Objects already packed, rolled, or boxed as appropriate are easier to move safely and quickly.
  2. If objects on display have their own crates, boxes, or rollers and if these packing materials are clearly labeled (preferably also with a photograph) and accessible in the storage area, it is possible that they would be used in the event of a looting, which would save some damage. If there really is a danger of a collection being taken, it is actually more sensible to make its packing as easy as possible.
  3. If a collection is under threat, and there is no possibility of moving it to safety, making sure that all objects are clearly marked using that collection's numbering system should be a priority. Numbering with UV markers (the numbers invisible to the naked eye) could also be considered, so that if obvious identification numbers are removed, an object may still be identifiable.
  4. It is advisable to leave a copy of the inventory of each shelf or box nearby, taped to the shelf or in the box. Perhaps those taking the collection will use it, saving some confusion later.

7.2 7.2 Documentation

  1. A collection's cataloging system must be simple and sensible enough for people unfamiliar with it to use. Dar al-Athar now maintains both paper and computer records, and both systems have been kept as simple as possible.
  2. No collection's inventory and catalog information should be kept only and entirely on-site. A copy or backup should be kept elsewhere, and in certain cases in another country. Kuwait is such a case. Computerization of records is an obvious aid to making them portable and reproducible.
  3. Documentation should include measurements of all objects, particularly large items, to allow crates to be designed ahead of the operation to claim the objects. Documentation should also include photographs, either hard copies or scanned images. These photographs are an aid not only in identifying objects but also in assessing damage later.

7.3 7.3 Preparation for the recovery operation

  1. One of the greatest assets that Dar al-Athar had was an already established office, albeit small, in another country, with experienced staff and all the necessary office equipment to handle its new role as communication and administrative center for the recovery operation. In an ideal world, such an office would be another recommendation. Realistically, museums in this position would have to be prepared to set up such an office at short notice.

7.4 7.4 The recovery operation

Some recommendations:

  1. Think through the process well in advance. Paperwork for Dar al-Athar's records was designed in London, and as a result of planning it was possible to record quickly not only the information needed for the handover but also information about all objects not numbered, misnumbered, not photographed, or damaged before the invasion. This arrangement was to prove immensely useful later when there was a chance to work on improving documentation.
  2. Computers were not used by the Dar al-Athar team, simply because the museum was not yet using them. Laptops would have been extremely useful, but with the warning that, in such a situation, electricity supplies may be erratic or nonexistent. Power surges disabled two of the UN team's laser printers in the course of the operation. The wherewithal for making manual records as a backup should be taken along.
  3. Keep the system simple. During the six-week operation, an average of 1,400 objects or books were handed over per day. With the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah library, a list of the 100 most important volumes or sets of volumes was submitted, and it was agreed that if they could be traced, the rest would be taken on trust. Conservation condition reporting forms were printed up in advance, in checklist format so that, when necessary, recording could be done quickly. Time was very short.
  4. Take team members who are used to working abroad and can be objective in the particular circumstances of the operation. The situation was extremely tense at times, and it would have been very difficult on Kuwaitis. It was probably fortunate for all concerned that the Kuwaiti team had been withdrawn; as foreigners, we were perhaps more neutral. Even so, the operation was a strain, and we lost one of our packers, who dramatically developed a heart condition directly related to feelings of claustrophobia and fear brought on by our situation, and had to be flown out of Iraq.
  5. Take team members who know the collection. For the curators having to identify objects, the advantages are obvious. In the conservator's case, knowing the Dar al-Athar collection meant that it was possible to acknowledge objects that had been broken or otherwise damaged before the invasion. As the conservator's condition reports were to form part of the basis for the two museums' claim against Iraq, verifying previous damage helped to establish trust in a sometimes touchy situation. The UN emphasized that at any time the Iraqis could call the operation off, and it was necessary to tread very carefully. Although on the whole they were cooperative, tempers could and did flare unexpectedly on occasion.
  6. Assemble the team beforehand. Due to the particular circumstances at the time, the Dar al-Athar team was not able to meet together as a group to discuss the project at the planning stage. The fact that the end result was as good as it turned out to be was due to the skills of the head of delegation, who made herself our point of contact and coordinated ideas, requests, and so on. But face-to-face discussions would have been positive in building team spirit. As it was, working relationships between members who had not met before had to be forged on the operation itself. Had there been two teams as originally envisaged, the job might actually have been harder, as the working methods of the two museums might have been very different and blending all the staff into one working unit more complicated.
  7. It would have been an advantage to have had a second conservator and/or an experienced museum assistant to work in the packing room while the other conservator worked on the handover. This member of the team could have helped with the packing of delicate or broken objects, and the use of conditioned silica gel or any special boxes would have been easier to monitor. The packers were working under great pressure and at great speed and should not have been expected to deal with special packing requirements as well.
  8. Pack objects by media. Doing so makes appropriate storage easier when the objects reach their destination. If possible, prepare separate storerooms for objects needing humidification or dehumidification. It may be that crates will not be unpacked for some time, but this way they can at least be grouped according to the conditions needed by their contents.
  9. Pack objects that will need urgent conservation work separately, so they can be dealt with as quickly as possible after the recovery operation.
  10. Expect the unexpected. We were not informed until we arrived in Baghdad that the packers would have to travel for two to three hours to another airport outside Baghdad each time a shipment went out, thus losing most of a day's packing time for each trip. This necessity put them behind schedule. It would have been useful to have had backup staff on standby and the possibility of bringing them in to help.
  11. One of the clearest lessons learned during both the preparations and the handover itself was the value of a professional administrator as head of the team, particularly one who was familiar with the culture and political situation of the area we were working in.
  12. Take absolutely everything that might be needed; be self-sufficient.
  13. Then take more!


The National Museum collection is back in its home, though not all of the galleries have reopened. The Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection has been put in semistorage until a new museum is opened. A large modern house has been converted, and having all objects boxed or crated in Baghdad by their media has facilitated the storage of the collection by media. Humidifiers or dehumidifiers have been installed where appropriate, and a well-equipped conservation laboratory has been set up.

All Dar al-Athar objects needing urgent attention were treated within a year of the return, though many more remain to be restored. Interpol has details of all objects lost from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, and a fully documented claim against Iraq has been submitted to the UN.


Kuwait is so small that if there is a sudden invasion, the fact has to be faced that there may not be time to get all of the Dar al-Athar collection out. The National Museum would have great problems in moving more than a fraction of its collections out quickly, if only because of their much greater size.

The Baghdad operation exposed all the deficiencies of the museum's original recording system, and the curators decided to use this breathing space before Dar al-Athar goes back on display to completely redesign the museum's documentation systems. When a collection disappears completely and all that is left is whatever documentation may exist, its value, not only to a recovery operation but also to the academic world, is enormous. This insight was brought home very painfully.

The conservators have since worked on improving storage, not only in order to conserve objects in situ but also to store them in such a way that they can be transported with a minimum of handling and packing.


  1. Manual records are still used, but the museum is no longer solely dependent on them. The manual filing system has been simplified, but, more important from the point of view of disaster planning, the museum's curatorial, conservation, and photographic archives have been computerized.
  2. A professional photographer has been hired to clear the backlog of archive photography, and this process is almost complete. The London office has a duplicate of all transparencies and black-and-white photographs.
  3. All archive photographs (one or two per object) have been scanned and imported into the image records of the database at a resolution varying between 75 and 150 DPI.
  4. Backup disks are made daily, and weekly copies are kept off-site. The London office has also been computerized and receives monthly backups.

9.2 9.2 Storage

  1. There is now an ongoing program of providing clear storage boxes (polystyrene or polythene) with inert polyethylene foam supports for all small and vulnerable objects, for the purpose of easy and safe handling as well as for transport. All ivory objects and most of the hard-stone and jewelry objects are now boxed, and all corroding metals are in airtight boxes with desiccated silica gel.
  2. All carpets and large textiles are on rollers, and covered with thick calico.
  3. All groups of miniatures, bound manuscripts, and separate leather bindings now have individual archival-quality Solander boxes.
  4. All objects have been checked for clear numbering.

Although these arrangements do not apply to the whole collection (ceramic and glass objects will always be a problem), much of it is now in a much easier condition to move.

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and the National Museum of Kuwait are in the fortunate position of being able to start again, having regained the majority of their collections. It is to be hoped that some of the lessons learned will be of as much use elsewhere as they have been in Kuwait.


My thanks to Sheikha Hussah al-Salem al-Sabah for her continuing support for all aspects of the work of the conservators at Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah.

A great debt of gratitude is owed both to UNROP for facilitating the recovery operation and to the Ministry of Information, Kuwait, for funding it.

Katie Marsh, who directed preparations for the recovery operation in Baghdad and who was head of delegation during the operation, deserves all praise for her clear leadership and organization throughout, and unflagging diplomacy and strength in trying times. Manuel Keene, curator, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Dr. Robert Skelton, keeper of Indian Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Simon Roberton, photographer, provided professional support, occasionally surreal humor, and very good company, which made the team a pleasure to work with.

Many thanks to Artworld Shippers for its hugely impressive speed, efficiency, and long working hours in packing the two collections in Baghdad, and to Mrs. Sue Kaoukji and Abdul Kareem al-Ghadban for their work in receiving and storing it at the Kuwait end.


KIRSTY NORMAN was born in Hong Kong and brought up in Hong Kong, Australia, and England. She trained as an archaeological conservator at the British Museum in London, went to Turkey to work as conservator to the British School of Archaeology at Ankara, and then became a free-lance archaeological conservator. For the last 11 years she has worked as conservator to Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (the Sabah Collection of Islamic Art) in Kuwait, and on excavations and consultancy projects in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Cyprus, and Hong Kong. She is based in London. Address: 30 De Beauvoir Square, De Beauvoir, London N1 4LE, U.K.

Section Index