Museum helps save Iraqi treasures
Walters’ conservator Terry Drayman-Weisser helped train Iraqi museum employees to repair their damaged treasures
Terry Drayman-Weisser, the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of Conservation and Technical Research at the Walters Art Museum, discusses her work in one of the museum’s conservation labs. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / June 30, 2010)
By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
4:14 p.m. EDT, July 2, 2010
After nearly two decades of bombing in Iraq, the priceless Nimrud ivories were covered with mold and reduced to near-rubble.
Some of the artifacts — elaborate plaques carved with scenes from mythology and daily life found at the site of a former palace and believed to be more than 3,000 years old — had become glued to the packing materials designed to protect them. Fragments of several of the ivories were jumbled together, making any effort to reassemble them into a high-stakes jigsaw puzzle.
Terry Drayman-Weisser, the director of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum, knew she had to do what she could to help get the treasures repaired, even if it meant flying to a country where Americans are still being targeted. Late last month, she returned from the northern city of Erbil, where she helped found a training academy to teach Iraqi museum employees how to restore precious artworks damaged by the war.
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“When I saw the photographs of what had happened to the ivories, I felt so helpless,” Drayman-Weisser says. “I have never in my all years seen ivories in such bad condition. I was horrified, and I knew I had to do something.”
“Something” turned into a series of related programs that took place over five years, and which are part of an ambitious initiative to save Iraq’s cultural treasures that is unprecedented in U.S. conservation history.
“I don’t know of anything quite like it,” says Eryl Wentworth, the executive director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
“It’s really rather remarkable. Conservators have gone to specific sites over the years to work on artworks that have been damaged in times of war and by natural disasters. But I’ve never heard of a museum actually traveling to a country like Iraq and setting up an academic program.”
The Walters is a small museum. But from the very beginning, it has been a key part of efforts by the U.S. State Department and the American Association of Museums to help Iraq preserve its endangered gold pieces and ivories, as well as its bombed-out archeological sites. It is fair to say that the museum is becoming an increasingly important player among the nation’s arts institutes.
“We were chosen on a national basis, and we were chosen because of Terry’s reputation,” says Walters Director Gary Vikan. “The little Walters. It was an immense honor.”
Drayman-Weisser has spent large chunks of the past five years or so working on the Iraq projects. That might seem like an awfully big undertaking on behalf of a bunch of 3,000-year-old elephant tusks located halfway across the world. But the Nimrud ivories aren’t important only to residents of the Persian Gulf.
“Iraq is the cradle of civilization,” says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “It’s from whence we all ultimately came. We can’t understand our own history if the world’s great cultural treasures disappear.”
Even before the first Persian Gulf War broke out, Iraq’s ivories were separated into three groups for safekeeping.
The first group was stored in a bank vault, which flooded when the security system was breached. The second was placed in a metal box in an underground location that periodically took on water as the Tigris River rose and fell — steeping the ivories in a foul stew of bacteria and sewage for a dozen years.
Other pieces that had been locked in a storage room and bathroom of the Iraq National Museum were knocked to the ground and crushed underfoot during the infamous 2003 looting, when about 15,000 objects in the museum’s collection were stolen.
There was an international outcry once news of the vandalism and thefts became public. In 2005, Vikan contacted the State Department to offer the Walters’ assistance.
“When [then-Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfield responded to the looting by saying, ‘Stuff happens,’ it really irritated me,” Vikan says. “Once the dust began to settle, I learned that the British Museum was involved in conservation efforts. I’ve always admired them, and I wanted to see if there was anything at all we could do to help.”
Rather than risk the safety of staff members by sending them to war-torn Baghdad, the Walters opted to bring two conservators from the Iraq museum to Baltimore, where they would train with Drayman-Weisser, who has an international reputation as an ivory expert.
In May 2006, the Iraqi conservators — an older woman and younger man — arrived in Baltimore for a monthlong stay. Only the conservators’ immediate families knew they were in the U.S., and to protect their safety, their names have never been made public. Initially, neither the woman, a physicist, nor the man, a geologist, spoke much English. The culture shock was profound.
“It was a very traumatic time for them,” Vikan says. “Their lives were torn up, and their families were torn up. They’d never been in a Western environment. The extent to which they’d been sequestered was amazing to me. We had to learn things like not putting out your hand to shake the hand of an Iraqi woman.
“Terry was like their mother. She determined what they ate, when they ate, how they got around. When they got back, they wrote her letters that began ‘My dearest Terry’ and ‘Darling friend.’ It was so charming.”
Unfortunately, after the two conservators returned to Iraq, neither was able to put the new knowledge to use. The National Museum had closed, and its director had left the country.
Baghdad was very dangerous. The male conservator fled Iraq with his family; his female counterpart couldn’t return to work for three years, until the museum reopened.
“The ivories remained in perilous condition, and I continued to fear for them,” Drayman-Weisser says.
So when she was approached again by the State Department in the summer of 2008 about setting up a school in Erbil, she jumped at the chance.
The project to found the school was funded by a two-year grant from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, which was working jointly with Virginia-based International Relief and Development.
Drayman-Weisser worked with experts from the University of Delaware and the nearby Winterthur Museum. They devised the curriculum, selected a site in the northern part of the nation far from Baghdad and rounded up a slate of instructors. A building in Erbil was donated and renovated.
And in June, Drayman-Weisser herself went to Erbil for a week to teach eight students advanced techniques in ivory preservation.
From the first, teaching there presented unique challenges.
Because the Nimrud ivories couldn’t be removed from Baghdad, teacher and students had to rely on photographs of the damage to devise treatment techniques.
Great clouds of dust were everywhere. And to demonstrate respect for Iraqi customs, Drayman-Weisser made sure she was covered from neck to toe in the 100-degree heat.
“I was struck by how many bridal shops there are in Erbil,” she said during one of her visits there. “In fact, one of the streets looks a lot like Eastern Avenue in Baltimore. The house I am in has everything one needs to live a simple, comfortable life. So why do all of the bathroom fixtures look as if they were looted from Saddam’s palaces?”
The teacher and her students had to use a translator for even the simplest communications; when Drayman-Weisser ventured alone into a local shop to buy supplies, she had to try to figure out how to ask for a “protractor” with hand signals.
Nonetheless, she and her students quickly became attached. On her fourth day in Iraq, one student re-enacted a time-honored American tradition by presenting the teacher with an apple.
The most important part of her job, Drayman-Weisser says, was teaching the Iraqis a different method of problem-solving.
“Iraqis tend to learn by rote,” she says. “They want recipes for things. That’s very different from the way American conservators are taught. It’s the difference between being trained as a technician and being taught how to make your own diagnosis. They’d never before been exposed to that kind of thinking about art objects, and they became very excited. This whole new world opened up for them.”
Drayman-Weisser taught the Iraqis about the structural differences between ivories taken from elephants, mammoths, walruses, rhinos, sperm whales and hippopotamuses, and how to identify a tusk long separated from the animal it once grew on.
She taught them to analyze the chemicals and other materials they would use to restore and care for the treasures, because using an improper solution, or inserting the blade of a knife into the wrong part of a piece of ivory, could harm the objects the conservators were working to preserve. And she taught them how to do computer research on different treatment methods.
“One of the things that I was very moved by was the students’ real hunger for knowledge,” she says.
“They’d hang on my every word. We forget just how isolated the Iraqi population is. They were using techniques and books that we stopped using in the United States 30 years ago.”
As the visit was wrapping up, Drayman-Weisser was approached after class by one of her students.
“She told me, ‘The thing I’m most worried about is your leaving. Once you go back, there will be no one to answer our questions.’ “
Drayman-Weisser thought long and hard about that problem. She told her students that she plans to return to Erbil in December to teach a second class at the newly founded Iraq Institute for the Conservation and Preservation of Antiquities and Heritage.
But six months is a long time to wait.
So at the graduation ceremony, the students received a certificate from the University of Delaware and a business card holder from Drayman-Weisser.
In each, the teacher had placed her card with the bronze and black lettering that contains her contact information at the Walters. As she handed out her gifts, she made the same little speech:
“I told each one,” she says, “‘You are not alone.’ “