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Devastation And Controversy: Consequences of the US Invasion for Iraqi Archives

A lecture by Jeff Spurr, Harvard University

The invasion of Iraq, and the failure of the US occupiers to plan for the immediate imposition of a new authority after toppling a totalitarian regime led directly to the ensuing wave of uncontrolled looting and arson.  This had dire consequences for virtually all Iraqi cultural and educational institutions, specifically including libraries and archives.   The plight of Iraqi archives, and the free-for-all that ensued regarding all sites holding documents of national interest exemplifies this problematic situation.  The Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) found itself a particular target in April 2003, and remains the principal actor in the ensuing controversies over the control of documents.  This paper will briefly describe these circumstances and effects, with an emphasis on the case of the INLA.  It will address the failure to provide adequate funding on the part of critical actors for institutional rehabilitation, and the ongoing controversies concerning Iraqi documents seized by various parties soon after the invasion, and efforts to see that they are repatriated to Iraq.  These include the millions of documents appropriated by the invading forces, particularly American, those taken by the Iraq Memory Foundation (now at the Hoover Institution), and the complicated case of the so-called Iraqi Jewish Archive.

Jeff Spurr is an independent scholar of Islamic textiles and rugs, and of the history of photography in the Middle East. During 26 years at Harvard he developed and managed collections of historical photographs of the Middle East and adjacent regions (Balkans through Central Asia and Northern India, and Sudan), irrespective of subject, as well as slide and digital collections documenting Islamic visual culture in all of its dimensions.  He also has a sustained interest in human rights and cultural heritage, and the fate of libraries and archives in countries subjected to conflict. He has been particularly deeply engaged in such activities in reference to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, the latter remaining a source of active concern; he is head of the Middle East Librarians Association Committee on Iraqi Libraries. His principal ongoing research project addresses the presence and impact of the Kashmir shawl in Persia. He is currently collaborating on a book on Kashmir shawls, and is also engaged in certain questions concerning late traditional Central Asian textiles. He has strong links to museums, being a member of the Visiting Committee of the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of the Collections Committee of the Harvard Art Museum, and of the Advisory Council of the Textile Museum, Washington, DC.

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