Iraq’s invaluable heritage assets have been subject to a range of negative impacts including looting and theft. Following the US/UK-led invasion in April 2003, thousands of valuable artefacts were looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, many of which have never been recovered. Collaborative interventions have been crucial to protect and enhance Iraq’s globally significant cultural heritage for future generations.

Through the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the University of Reading partnered with colleagues in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the government body responsible for museums and archaeology, to address urgent and long-term threats to Iraq’s cultural heritage. Professor Roger Matthews, Dr Wendy Matthews and Dr Amy Richardson worked with the Iraq Museum, Baghdad (the national museum of Iraq), Slemani Museum, and Sulaimani Polytechnic University in the Kurdistan region, to enhance the protection and promotion of Iraq’s heritage sites and assets and ensure equitable access by all the communities of Iraq.

As a means both of deterring theft and of tracking potentially looted artefacts across international markets, Professor Matthews led the Iraq SmartWater project, supported by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, to apply a traceable liquid, containing encoded isotopic signatures, to inorganic artefacts in both the Iraq Museum and Slemani Museum. In total, security technology was applied to 273,000 artefacts of stone, metal, glass and clay. The Reading team worked with local antiquities staff and trained them in security measures and cataloguing of application protocols to build and sustain future capacity. We now aim to expand the project to other museums in Iraq with vulnerable collections, and museum collections in other regions undergoing instability and conflict, such as Yemen.

Iraq’s museums are hugely important centres for development of inclusive, active places for learning and engaging with the country’s rich cultural heritage. At Slemani Museum, the Reading team collaborated with Museum Directors Dr Amira Edan and Mr Hashim Hama, and with Dr Rozhen Mohammed-Amin to develop a new prehistory gallery and educational materials structured according to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with archaeological evidence presented within the broad themes of climate and environment change, sustainability, innovation and development, and creating and connecting communities. Using modern advances in design, planning and public engagement the gallery was re-organised to encourage visitors, especially families, to engage with heritage sites across the region, and past, present and future sustainability. Enriched public engagement with heritage through museums creates greater national and international appreciation that supports local communities and leads to better protection of those assets.

Find out more

Looting of antiquities has increased under lockdown – here’s how we’re working to prevent this in Iraq (blog, June 2020)

Priceless artifacts in Iraq protected from theft using new Smartwater ‘fingerprinting’ (press release, April 2020)

Protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage (blog, March 2018)