Saturday, March 21, 2009

How soon is too soon?

The New York Times reported this week on the official "reopening" of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the institution equally famous for ancient Mesopotamian artifacts as for the extensive looting that went on there after the U.S. invasion. The move was controversial, with only 8 of 26 galleries open to a select group of invited guests, with the public kept far outside the compound. The Ministry of Culture was totally against Prime Minister's Nuri al-Maliki's decision to reopen the museum, and boycotted the ceremony.

"Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki pushed to reopen the museum, against the advice of his own Culture Ministry, as a sign of Iraqi progress. Symbol it was, and symbol it remains — not only of how much Iraq has improved, but of how far it has to go."

Archeology in Iraq has been politicized for a very long time, and archeologists from various colonial powers (US, UK, and Germany especially) as well as Iraqis themselves have used their discoveries to influence publics in ways very analogous to the PD strategies we've discussed in class. In Iraq, what qualifies as PD can be extremely muddled however, as there are a lot of groups within the boundaries of the state that behave, and are dealt with as, foreign publics. After WWI, when Britain was defining the borders of modern Iraq, archeologists were some of the most experienced colonial hands, and they've been criticized for making a country that matched the boundaries of Hammurabi's empire in 2500 BC better than it reflected the realities of 1920.

With the ethnic violence in Iraq since the invasion, there's been a move back towards archeology as a way to remind Iraqis of their common heritage, kind of an internal "rebranding" meant to give the various religious sects and ethnic groups something they can agree on. An "Arab state" or an "Islamic State" is going to alienate somebody no matter what; its thought that Iraq's unique archeological heritage has the potential to rise above this.

So Maliki's move can be viewed as both PD directed at foreign publics, showing the world that Iraq is rebuilding and is once again home to institutions of high culture. It can also be viewed as a kind of domestic PD, directed at his own people, showing Iraqis who aren't invested in the state yet that they nevertheless share this unique history with everyone else in the country.

While both of those goals are important and potentially very powerful, the effort is undermined when less than a third of the museum's exhibits are open, only select invited guests are allowed in, very visible soldiers with automatic weapons are keeping the public out, and the bureaucrats ostensibly in charge of the institution are boycotting the ceremony altogether. One can understand Maliki's urgency to unleash the PD potential of the Iraq museum, but doing so prematurely can do more harm than good.

1 comment:

  1. This post reminded me of research I did my junior year on repatriation of cultural property. For those who do not know, this is the return of cultural objects to their nation of origin. The most famous case of this is the ongoing requests by Greece for the return of the Parthenon marbles from Great Britain.
    This case of the Iraqi museum reopening as a matter of demonstrating national pride or at the least national calm relates well to the idea of repatriation. Few realize just how important artistic treasures are to the identity of the nation. The conflicts of these treasures can defintely strain the relations between two countries and the return of objects is a huge boost for each side.
    Art have been used as a form of propaganda and branding for centuries and it's worth noting in Public Diplomacy. Think David's portraits of Napoleon. In our times something as simple as inviting a foreign artist to exhibit in the U.S. could be PD Art may be dismissed by the more analytic side of our serious subject, but pictures say a 1000 words and in diplomacy that is a lot.