Iraq Mends Cultural Memory through Rehabilitating IS-Devastated Mosul Cultural Museum
By Tong Tung Yeng
The Mosul Cultural Museum (MCM), Iraq’s second largest cultural institution previously ravaged by decades of arson, looting, and bombing, will once again open its doors to the public in 2026. On May 11, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) shared its extensive restoration and exhibition plans to restore the museum’s status as cultural landmark and regional center for social exchange and memory.
An SBAH-led international consortium comprising the Musée du Louvre and the Smithsonian Institution initiated rehabilitation plans for the MCM beginning 2018, funded by the International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas (ALIPH). In efforts to memorialize darker aspects of the museum’s history, the large bomb-crater within its most heavily damaged central Assyrian gallery will be retained. Aside from restoring the museum’s physical site, partners will provide expertise in management, security, community engagement, and sustainability befitting of a contemporary cultural powerhouse. In the words of the MCM director Zaid Ghazi Saadallah, “This project will return the Mosul Cultural Museum to its rightful place at the heart of the city and make it a cultural hub for the region.”
Designed by the late father of Iraqi modernist architecture, Mohammed Makiya, the MCM served as caretaker for prized prehistoric, Assyrian, Hatra, and Islamic artefacts for more than seven decades since its 1952 inauguration. During the second Gulf War in 2003, the MCM’s collections were looted and consequently dispersed across the country. The museum continued to be hapless casualty of war with terror organization, the Islamic State (IS)’s capture of Mosul in 2014. Major Assyrian monuments were destroyed alongside the arson of over 28,000 books and rare manuscripts. A year following its ransacking, videos of IS circulated on the internet, in which they destroyed the museum’s statues and artefacts that were deemed “falsely idolatrous” with sledgehammers and power drills. While the national military finally recaptured Baghdad in 2017, the MCM remained heavily damaged and thus temporarily shuttered.
In a lead up to the museum’s anticipated 2026 opening, an exhibition titled “The Mosul Cultural Museum: From Destruction to Rehabilitation” is currently on view at the MCM’s former home, The Royal Hall, until June 1, 2023. Curated by Saadallah in partnership with Musée du Louvre, the show will display archival documents and photographs in celebration of the MCM’s origins while reconstructing its lost collections, as well as producing models of the museum post-renovation.
Tong Tung Yeng is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.