Which British diplomat, explorer, archaeologist and spy established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum?
Answer: Gertrude Bell
In an era when women were restricted in their movements and rights, Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) continually broke the mold and redefined what a woman could accomplish.
Born into a wealthy family, Bell had the means to travel the world. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in modern history, which would serve her well in her future career, and became the first woman to earn first-degree honors in that discipline at Oxford. A trip to Persia to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who served as the British minister in Tehran, awakened Bell’s lifelong love of the Middle East.
Over the next two decades, she traveled extensively throughout the Middle East—recording, photographing and even sometimes excavating the ruins she encountered, from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. She became familiar with the desert and its inhabitants—learning both the best routes through an inhospitable landscape and which Arab tribes had alliances with others. When World War I began, she was asked to be an intelligence officer because of this extensive knowledge.
Bell was the only woman present at the 1921 Cairo Conference, a meeting called by Winston Churchill that set new boundaries for states in the Middle East after World War I, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. T.E. Lawrence was also in attendance at this conference.
After this, she stayed in Iraq and founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (also known as the National Museum of Iraq and the Iraq Museum). Her intent was to keep artifacts that were being uncovered at excavations throughout Iraq from leaving the country. In 1922, Bell began amassing a collection for the museum; it was housed first in one of Baghdad’s governmental buildings but was moved to a new building in 1926 by the Iraqi government—thereby establishing the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. Bell served as the museum’s first director until her death shortly thereafter. In 1966, the museum moved again to a new facility. Although the Baghdad Archaeological Museum has seen some tumultuous times, including heavy damage and looting in 2003,a it remains the largest museum in Iraq, and Bell’s legacy lives on.
Bell is buried in Baghdad, the city that she held so dear.