Seeking Since 2008, a truly remarkable U.S.-Iraqi partnership has been built in Erbil, the largest city in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and home to the ancient 8,000-year-old Erbil citadel. The Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage(IICAH)—a collaboration between numerous Iraqi and US governmental and academic institutions—is training Iraq's museum and heritage professionals in the conservation and preservation of their national treasures, ranging from Babylonian archeological sites to exquisite ivory figures from Nimrud and historic Ottoman homes.
Prior to 1980, the organization responsible for preserving Iraq's heritage, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), was staffed by career professionals, often with advanced degrees from abroad and decades of experience in museum management and archaeology. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's, the 1991 Gulf War, decades of disinterest in cultural heritage on the part of a repressive government, and the sanctions of the 1990's resulted in a precipitous reduction in Iraq's professional heritage staff, and neglect and deterioration of museum collections and archaeological and heritage sites. Iraq's heritage crisis culminated with the highly visible looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, which drew international attention to the decades of decline in Iraq's heritage sector.
Seeking a solution to Iraq's heritage preservation needs, in 2008 the US Embassy Baghdad awarded a two-year Targeted Development Program (TDP) grant to the NGO International Relief and Development to fund the Iraq Cultural Heritage Program (ICHP). The keystone of this project was the founding of a cultural heritage training center, the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, which offers international-standard programs taught by experts from abroad. The IICAH meets Iraq’s pressing need for well-trained museum and heritage professionals by offering a custom-designed curriculum that brings distinguished experts to Iraq. There they collaborate with resident faculty and trainees from throughout Iraq to deliver coursework comparable to US programs. Since trainees are drawn from the active ranks of the SBAH, provincial antiquities departments and university faculty and staff, participants in the programs are already working in positions where their newly acquired training and international networks can be immediately applied.
In consultation with the SBAH, this center was located in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, to ensure ready access both to Iraqis and foreign experts. The ancient city of Erbil sits near the center of the Kurdistan region of Iraq located in the north and made up of the three provinces Erbil, Sulaymaniah, and Duhok. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been extremely supportive of this initiative. The governor of Erbil provided a large residential teaching facility in downtown Erbil located immediately below the historic citadel, and contributed funds to renovate and furnish the building.
The IICAH's core educational program in museum collections conservation was launched in October 2009 under the guidance of three expert partner institutions: the University of Delaware Department of Art Conservation, the Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library and the Walters Art Museum. A second 16-week program in historic preservation ran twice in 2010. These program established course organization with class instruction modules in Erbil combined with practical experiences in home institutions.
In order to ensure a sustainable future for the Institute, in July 2010, the SBAH and the Governor of Erbil signed a Memorandum of Agreement concerning the management and operation of the Institute in 2011. This agreement stipulates a five member Board – three appointed by the SBAH, two by the Erbil Governor– to manage the institute. The agreement also stipulates four “Master Trainers” - two from SBAH, two from the Erbil Governor – who will eventually take the place of the U.S. expatriate Program Directors. One of these master trainers completed a Fellowship at the New York University's Art Conservation Program in 2012
In 2011, the US Embassy Baghdad awarded additional funds to the University of Delaware, as lead partner, to continue the project, hire an academic director and augment the existing academic program. Jessica S. Johnson, who served as Program Director for the Collection Care and Conservation program from 2009, returned in April 2011 as the Academic Director to work with the current IICAH Director and Board in implementing and developing collaborations for training, outreach, and education in support of the Institute mission in 2011 and beyond.
Go here to see how IICAH programs in collections conservation, architectural conservation and archaeological site preservation have been developed and expanded since 2011.