‘Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq’ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


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A dual language (Arabic and English) exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (Oxford) highlights the long-lasting impact of the past on the present, also questioning what is meant by “heritage” and introducing voices and stories of people not previously visible in other displays devoted to the very histories and heritage of their homelands. 

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford

Readers of Mar Shiprim will know the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford as home to one of the UK’s major cuneiform collections, including famous examples that have even made it onto the list of CDLI’s top ten inscribed objects. These well-known documents, along with many others, will be redisplayed as part of a major refurbishment of the Museum’s Ancient Middle East gallery, scheduled to open in May 2021. The new displays will focus on the lives of the ancient inhabitants of the region, providing context through the arrangement of objects with photographs and reconstructions. This will be a change from the existing approach of displaying tablets in a single case to show the development and variety of script and content over time. 

Instead, they will appear throughout the gallery so that visitors can understand, for example, the origin of writing in the context of the first cities, and Sumerian literary achievements as a product of the Old Babylonian period. Some of the tablets came to Oxford as a gift from the collector Herbert Weld-Blundell in the early 1920s. He had purchased them as they were literally being plundered from the site of Larsa, as well as from dealers in Baghdad. Such accounts raise complex and often uncomfortable questions about how objects came to the Museum and some of these stories will be explored in a dedicated case as part of the new displays.

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Installation view [Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford]

A number of projects have taken place over the last few years to help develop and shape the narratives in the gallery. This includes a temporary exhibition called Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq which explores the history of how ancient objects from Iraq came to the Ashmolean in more detail than will be possible in the permanent gallery. Crucially, it highlights the impact that these events have had and continue to have on the lives and identities of people from the Middle East. The approach is part of a museum-wide strategy designed to proactively address issues of equity and inclusion. Called ‘Ashmolean for All’, it aims to improve the way the Museum represents, works with, and includes diverse communities and individuals: existing visitors, potential visitors, staff, and volunteers. Part of this work involves rethinking our institutional history and the stories we tell in the galleries.

The exhibition was inspired by the attempts of so-called Islamic State or Daesh to eradicate the borders of Iraq and the lives of many of its peoples in the years 2014-17.  The Ashmolean seemed the perfect place to consider the origins of these borders, especially in the context of the region’s archaeology and heritage, as a number of the Museum’s employees and Oxford alumni were instrumental in their creation as well as the formation of the University’s ancient Middle East collection: David Hogarth (Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1909 to 1927), T.E. Lawrence, Leonard Woolley, and especially Gertrude Bell. They were fascinated by the ancient Middle East because they considered it to be at the root of Western Civilization (now clearly a problematic concept). A number of cuneiform tablets had entered the Bodleian Library in the later 19th century, but it was Hogarth who began to acquire examples for the Ashmolean, while Bell, Lawrence and Woolley contributed seals and other objects they had purchased on their travels or excavated in Syria.

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 [Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford]

Their knowledge of the Middle East became important when the Turkish Ottoman Empire decided to enter the First World War on Germany’s side in 1914. Britain sent troops to protect its route to India and oil supplies in Iran by invading the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia through Basra. By 1917 British forces (mainly soldiers from India) had entered Baghdad. The region’s ancient objects now made unusual and portable souvenirs for the occupying soldiers and two were donated at that time to the Ashmolean and are displayed in the exhibition. 

One is a Sumerian statue uncovered by soldiers of the Indian army serving with the British, digging trenches at Istabulat, 13 km south of Samarra on the River Tigris. It dates to around 2400 BC and had almost certainly been dedicated in a temple. The front of the figure has been damaged by the pick of the soldier who discovered it. The commanding officer of the 14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs, an Englishman called Colonel Earle, donated it to the Ashmolean in 1919. In the same year a brick stamped with a cuneiform inscription reading ‘Palace of Shalmaneser, son of Adad-Nirari, King of Assyria’ that had been picked up by British soldiers passing by the remains of ancient city of Ashur was also donated to the Museum.

After the war, Britain was granted authority over Mesopotamia by the League of Nations and Gertrude Bell was instrumental in helping to establish a Kingdom of Iraq. As Honorary Director of Antiquities, she also wrote Iraq’s antiquities laws and established an archaeological museum in Baghdad. British colonial control of Iraq now allowed the University of Oxford and Chicago’s Field Museum to jointly undertake an excavation at the site of Kish between 1923 and 1933. It was led by Stephen Langdon, Oxford’s Professor of Assyriology. His aim was to find cuneiform tablets, while the Field Museum was interested in archaeological and ethnographic artefacts. 

As a result, the agreement of 1922 with the Antiquities Department of Iraq allowed that after the official division of objects, Oxford was to receive all the remaining inscribed objects, while Chicago received archaeological, skeletal and scientific material; both institutions would also get representative collections of the categories not allocated to them for museum display. Hundreds of local men and boys were soon digging vast holes in the tells in a search for objects. In 1926 Langdon, in one of his rare visits to Iraq, also conducted the first of two seasons of excavation at the site of Jemdet Nasr, thereby adding some 200 proto-cuneiform tablets to the Ashmolean’s collections.

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Installation view [Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford]

As thousands of antiquities were being removed from Iraq to museums around the world throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the challenge of finalising the borders of Iraq proved to be less than straightforward. It would take more than a decade of discussion and debate to decide where the borders should be drawn since any line on a map inevitably meant separating communities or including some within new states while denying others; people’s individual and group identities were challenged, disrupted and even erased.

To explore the impact of these events on people in the region, we involved local members of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish diaspora, with the help of paid Community Ambassadors, in the development of the exhibition. Listening to their views about the events of 1914 to 1932 (when Iraq nominally gained independence of Britain), and what these meant to them as individuals as well as to their communities, we have sought to represent them in the exhibition. 

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The Piers Secunda art installation [Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford]

Together, in a series of workshops, we discussed whether archaeological objects were important in telling their stories and how their sense of identity and community has been maintained in a distant land. The exhibition is therefore an opportunity to highlight the long-lasting impact of the past on the present, explore what is meant by heritage, the role of museums, and introduce voices and stories of people not previously visible in displays devoted to the very histories and heritage of their homelands. To help make the exhibition as accessible as possible, it was decided that it should be dual language – Arabic and English.

One of the most significant recent challenges to their heritage had been the attack on both historic monuments and the modern borders of Iraq by ISIS/Daesh. This was an attempt to destroy heritage as part of the lived experience of people, their very identities. To explore that question of relationships between the past and present identities through objects we have included a response by the artist Piers Secunda. He made a copy of an Assyrian relief in the Ashmolean collection (that had arrived in Oxford in 1852), damaging it by imposing ISIS bullet holes into the broken blocks using moulds of he had taken of sculptures in Mosul museum in 2018.

'Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq' at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Installation view [Credit: Ashmolean Museum Oxford]

The exhibition concludes with reflections on Iraq’s heritage today and questions who should be making decisions about it, not least the heritage that now lies outside Iraq’s borders. We highlight the Nahrein Network as a successful model for helping to support Iraqi researchers in reclaiming their own heritage as local history, putting it to constructive use for their communities.

Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq runs until 22 August 2021

Author: Stefania Ermidoro | Source: The International Association for Assyriology [February 15, 2021]

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