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Volume 51, Number 5September/October 2000

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Patient Restoration

The Kuwait National Museum

Written by Jonathan M. Bloom and Lark Ellen Gould
Additional photographs courtesy of Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah
Additional photographs by Ilene Perlman

As schoolgirls jostle to peer into a glass case of 4000-year-old clay seals, the main room of the Kuwait National Museum (KNM) looks as one might expect: Islands of neatly placed artifacts—terracotta vessels, Stone Age flints, Hellenistic stamp seals, Abbasid glazed jars—gleam under carefully aimed track lights. Upstairs, vibrant contemporary paintings by Kuwaiti artists hang from white walls under a high ceiling.

What the students can't see are the thousands of KNM artifacts still packed in steel trunks in the museum's storerooms, waiting to be recatalogued. Nor, indeed, can they see most of what is acknowledged to be one of the world's top collections of Islamic art—not quite yet. Restoring the war-ravaged collections of the KNM after their journey to Baghdad in 1990 has taken nine years, and it is a job still unfinished.

Today, the KNM's main building offers visitors about a quarter of the floor space of its previous structure, opened in 1983—roughly the same space it occupied when it originally opened in the late 1950's. At that time, its first modest ethnographic displays were housed in Bayt al-Badr, one of the few 19th-century homes that remained in Kuwait City.

The KNM rapidly outgrew Bayt al-Badr. By the early 1960's, archeologists working on Failaka Island, now a 40-minute ferry ride from Kuwait City, had begun to find artifacts dating as early as the late third millennium BC. Antique mariners' route-books noted that the island in the Arabian Gulf was one of few dependable sources of fresh water in the region, and it had apparently been regularly visited over the last 5000 years. Among the most notable discoveries were seals from the Bronze Age Dilmun culture, whose merchants traded heavily between Bahrain and Mesopotamia, and the ruins of fourth-century BC fortresses and sixth-century Byzantine churches.

Oil-era prosperity soon made the construction of the present KNM complex possible. Until the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, it consisted of three major exhibit halls, a planetarium, a conference center and a refurbished antique cargo dhow. The museum's ever-growing collection of modern Kuwaiti paintings became a point of special pride as a link to the worldwide art community. By the late 1980's, lectures and classes for both adults and children helped turn the KNM into a world-class cultural center.

In 1983 Building III, which had initially been earmarked for anthropological displays, was given over to a remarkable collection of Islamic art newly assembled by the husband-and-wife team of Shaykh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Shaykha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. The building was called Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAl), or House of Islamic Antiquities, and its affiliation with KNM brought the complex the broadest international attention.

Throughout the 1970's, observers of the art world had noted that several extraordinary collections of Islamic art were apparently being put together by a new generation of Middle Eastern connoisseur-collectors. They were anonymous and discreet, but the evidence from the auction rooms of Europe and North America was undeniable. One such collection, it later proved, was the al-Sabahs'.

Writing in the collection's 1983 catalogue, Shaykh Nasser explained that although his interest in Islamic art had begun when his father sent him to school in Jerusalem, the collecting impulse came later: "My vision of the Islamic past, reinforced by many visits to other historic cities of the world of Islam, ...remained simply a vision until my wife Hussah...encouraged me to translate this vision into reality and to begin collecting Islamic art." As the collection grew, it was also Shaykha Hussah who convinced her husband to put it on public display.

"What's the point of collecting if we do not share?" says Shaykha Hussah, who has served as DAl's director from its founding. "We traveled the world together with this passion, sometimes finding Mamluk cooking pots in the suq, as we did in Yemen, or Syrian candlesticks in Delhi that turned out to be invaluable once we wiped away the grime and saw their special stamps and inscriptions. The items talked to us. There was a constant dialogue between me and the objects. And you should see my husband—he talks to them, too; he even gives them names!" she says.

Shaykha Hussah opens a lightweight metal storage cabinet in an artifact-crowded room in her house. Seventeenth-century glassware stands next to 14th-century metal candlesticks; on the same shelf are delicately inscribed boxes for kohl (antimony-sulfide eyeliner); in other rooms lie piles of rolled, wrapped 14th-century carpets and small arrays of astonishing Mughal jewels. It's all arranged so that visiting scholars can work with the objects and visiting curators can contribute to the ongoing effort to restore order and organization to the collection.

It wasn't always like this. When DAI opened its 1200-piece permanent exhibition on Kuwait's national day in 1983, experts declared that a new star had appeared in the constellation of Islamic art collections. Critics judged that the scale, scope and quality of the DAI collection were comparable to—and in some respects even surpassed—such famous older collections as those in the Victoria and Albert and the British museums, the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the Hermitage and the David Collection in Copenhagen. Kuwait instantly became an important stop on the international museum circuit. DAI began an intensive program of lectures, conferences, tours and classes in the history and techniques of Islamic art, presented in both English and Arabic.

Linda Komaroff, curator of the Islamic Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and one of those who helped DAI install its exhibit, says that what distinguished the al-Sabah Collection from others was that it was put together by individuals dedicated to the full sweep of Islamic art. "Other museums took existing art in their home countries and created collections from that," she says, citing, for example, Istanbul's Topkapı Palace Museum and Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art. "They intended to preserve what was there, and it wasn't until much later that interest developed in acquiring [more widely]. But [Shaykh] Nasser took it upon himself to create from nothing. So it is more comprehensive."

Soon DAI also began lending its masterpieces and displaying those of other museums. In early 1990, DAI exhibited 120 Islamic objects from the State Hermitage Museum, many of which had never been displayed outside Russia. In return, 107 of DAI's finest pieces traveled to St. Petersburg that same year and later toured museums in the United States. (See Aramco World, November/December 1990.) As it turned out, the loan could not have been more timely.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait came on August 2, 1990. Shaykha Hussah was on holiday with her children in Europe; Shaykh Nasser was doing research on Failaka Island.

Shaykha Hussah believes Iraqi leaders knew of the KNM and DAI collections in advance, for it took only until October for the Iraqi representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to state that according to the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention— which exhorts combatant nations to remove art and antiquities from the theater of war—most of the KNM collections, all of the DAl's, and several hundred thousand books from the library of Kuwait University had all been moved to Baghdad. (In contrast, the less well known collections of the private Tareq Rajab Museum remained successfully hidden throughout the war.)

As Shaykha Hussah and the museum's curators later learned, Iraq sent a small group of archeologists from Baghdad's Iraq Museum with instructions to pack up the art collections as quickly as possible. Lacking proper museum-quality packing materials, the archeologists bought metal trunks by the dozen in the Kuwait market and stuffed them with often fragile collections of ceramics, metalwork and glass. In the absence of foam pads, the packers used rare medieval textiles to cushion one object from another during the 500-kilometer (350-mi) ride, over rough roads, to Baghdad. Once there, the cases were opened and their contents recorded to create an inventory that was later used in the recovery effort.

Amazingly, of approximately 7000 art objects moved, only about 200 were damaged or broken. And Katie Marsh, DAI's London director who coordinated the post-war recovery, says that of these "very few, perhaps 10," were beyond repair. Especially surprising were the glass objects, which had no new breaks—although several were found to have collapsed when the intense heat en route melted the resin that had been used to mend them in the past. Most of the carpets were found in perfect condition, in part because a textile conservator had come to Kuwait just before the invasion to examine and repair each carpet and wrap it in a specially-made linen case. Somewhat paradoxically, the worst superficial damage was suffered by the hardest objects—stone architectural fragments—because they were not individually wrapped, and they jostled against each other in the trucks.

DAI's library on Islamic civilization and art, estimated at more than 5000 volumes, was trundled off with similar haste. Groups of books were tied with cord, loaded onto trucks and later stacked in the basement of the Iraq Museum. "It was heartbreaking to see how filthy they were when we found them," recalls Marsh, "but [the Iraqi archeologists] did the best job they could under the circumstances."

In contrast to the clearing of the DAI, the Iraqi treatment of the KNM collections was less systematic. Although much of the archeological, ethnographic and historical collections went off to Baghdad, some items, from wooden Bedouin bowls to ornamental weapons and silver and gold jewelry, simply went missing.

"The collection was never systematically looted," says Marsh. The director of the KNM, Fahed al-Wohaibi, agrees, and believes that such items were likely taken by isolated Iraqi soldiers. Not so fortunate was the modern painting collection: Only a few paintings were taken to Baghdad.

The KNM buildings remained largely unaffected until the last two weeks of the occupation, in February 1991, when three of the KNM's five buildings, the old dhow and the planetarium "were deliberately set on fire," recounts al-Wohaibi, citing later investigations that revealed the use of gasoline or kerosene. The fire also gutted the interior of the DAI, destroying the only work of art left there, a massive pair of 14th-century carved wooden doors from Morocco that had proved too cumbersome to remove from the building. The fire in the KNM buildings destroyed remaining archeological collections and about half of the remaining paintings; the other paintings were smoked-damaged. The only significant collection that was entirely spared, al-Wohaibi says, was one of decorated wooden doors from the houses of pre-industrial Kuwait.

In London, the day after the Iraqi invasion, Marsh deposited the lists and photographs of the DAI collection, which she had kept since the 1970's, in a bank vault. When rumors arose that the Iraqis had taken the collection—for purposes uncertain at the time—she began compiling descriptions of each and every object in it. These descriptions were then published by UNESCO to help block their sale on the international art market.

In March 1991, according to United Nations Resolution 687, the Iraqis were obliged to return all property that had been removed from Kuwait. With the UN facilitating the restitution, the first items to be returned were gold bars from the Bank of Kuwait, an exchange that took place in a portable shelter at the Iraqi-Saudi border. Although the several hundred thousand books from the Kuwait University Library were also returned this way, such an arrangement was unsuitable for the transfer of fragile museum objects.

In May 1991, Richard Foran, the UN's coordinator of the return of Kuwaiti property, found virtually the entire KNM and DAI collections in the Assyrian Hall of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, largely still packed in trunks. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UN arranged with Iraqi officials that the return would take place there at the museum, and in August Marsh and Manuel Keene, DAI's curator, went to size up the task. In the presence of a UN envoy, they met with the director of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, who agreed to begin the return of the objects in the middle of September.

This allowed time for materials, food and medicines to be sent to Baghdad for use by the recovery team. Marsh spent a day estimating the packing materials that needed to be ordered from a London casemaker. The books were more of a problem, for the library catalogue had been burned in the DAI, and there was thus no way of determining whether the stacks in the Baghdad Museum actually comprised the entirety of the library's holdings. Marsh asked scholars who had used the library to list the most important books they remembered; she came up with a list of 300. All were found, leading her to conclude that few, if any, were missing.

The packing materials were shipped to Baghdad from Kuwait when UN planes could take them. Once they were there, Marsh assembled her team: In addition to Keene, she asked help from Robert Skelton, a former curator at London's Victoria and Albert Museum; Kirsty Norman, an art conservator who had worked at the DAI and Simon Roberton, who had already photographed much of the collection. They were assisted by a four-man specialist art-mover team headed by David Jackson, who had already overseen packing for the DAI in a variety of circumstances.

Working out of the Iraq Museum, the team put in 12-hour days from September 14 to October 20. A member of the UN team opened one Iraqi-packed crate at a time, while Kuwaiti and Iraqi representatives looked on. Each object was handed across the table to Keene, who identified the piece and noted its condition. Norman then double-checked its condition, and another UN representative typed the information into a computer file.

"The Iraqis never denied responsibility for damaging any object," says Marsh. Indeed, after an initial period of wariness, the members of the international team became quite cordial with each other, and the Iraqi hosts arranged a number of excursions to historic sites, including Babylon, Samarra, Hatra, Kish, Nimrud and Ctesiphon. "The Iraqis treated us like colleagues," Marsh adds. "They arranged to have all the provincial archeological museums opened for our visits. Under the circumstances, this was quite a feat, as none of the telephones worked."

Once entered into the UN computer, the objects legally became Kuwaiti property again. They were photographed and placed in a locked room in the museum that had been given over to the Kuwaiti delegation for the purpose. As the Kuwait-bound cases were filled, Marsh arranged space on what became 16 UN flights that would otherwise have been deadheading back to Kuwait.

It took the team some two weeks to recover the DAI collection and four weeks more to work through that of the KNM. In total, about 40,000 items were processed. In addition to the 200 damaged pieces from the DAI, some 60 turned out to be missing altogether. Of those, only three Mughal emeralds were considered major losses, for many of the collection's most important pieces had been among the 107 on loan in St. Petersburg at the time of the invasion. One of the emeralds was a unique prize: It weighed 243 carats and was carved with intricate floral designs. (See page 21.)

In the nine years since the recovery, only two of those 60 missing items have been recovered. One was presented for auction in London, where it was promptly spotted. The other was a piece of jewelry that a Kuwaiti jeweler recognized as his father's handiwork when it was offered for sale.

KNM's losses, says al-Wohaibi, were more extensive, in part due to the age and fragility of its largely pre-Islamic inventory. Nonetheless, he estimates that some 80 percent of the collection will eventually be restored.

In Kuwait, DAI registrar Sue Kaouqji set up a new electronic database, logged in each object, and placed it in temporary storage where the collection had first begun: in the home of Shaykh Nasser and Shaykha Hussah.

The KNM buildings were cleared of rubble and debris, cleaned, and the structures were tested for stability. The surviving KNM collection was returned for storage and further inventory, and the displays that the museum shows today were set up, including a careful replica of the antique dhow. A government working group has submitted recommendations for the KNM's full rehabilitation, and al-Wohaibi estimates the task will cost the equivalent of some $6 million.

The al-Sabahs have explored several possibilities for the permanent redisplay of their collection. Kuwait's head of state has expressed his desire to see the DAI return to the KNM complex, but the matter awaits a final decision. "Kuwait's economy suffered incredibly during the occupation, with much of its infrastructure totally devastated," says Shaykha Hussah. "Many of the country's assets have been used to restore hospitals, schools and utilities. We must be patient."

Meanwhile, she says the DAI is "more active than ever." While Shaykh Nasser has embarked on other reconstruction-related projects, Shaykha Hussah oversees regular loans to worldwide exhibitions, a lecture series that brings in national and international experts, courses in Islamic and Kuwaiti history, traveling exhibitions and production of educational multimedia materials.

An exhibition of Mughal gems titled "Mughal Jewelled Arts from the al-Sabah Collection" will open in May at the British Museum, and it will travel to at least four US museums after that.

For its part, the government-based Kuwait Arts Council hopes that the DAI will end up with more space than it had originally. Whether or not this comes to pass, says Marsh, the chance to design state-of-the-art displays and conservators' facilities means the DAI "may become a better museum than ever."

Komaroff observes that maximal display of the KNM collections grows increasingly important with time. The range and quality of art objects that were on the market in the 1970's and 1980's are simply no longer there, she says. "Most of the work is either already in museums or otherwise no longer in private hands, and therefore it is not coming on the market. Soon, like the great master paintings, there won't be any left to collect. That makes the al-Sabah Collection all the more important."

Jonathan M. Bloom is the Norma Jean Calderwood Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College and author or co-author of several books on Islamic art.

Lark Ellen Gould is the Africa and Middle East editor of Travel Agent newsweekly in Los Angeles.

Ilene Perlman is a free-lance photographer living in Boston.

This article appeared on pages 10-21 of the September/October 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2000 images.