The National Museum is back from the brink but still in a fragile state.

The building has been repaired, with new desks, chairs, toilets, computers, air conditioning and a few coats of paint. Germany donated high-quality cabinets for storing cuneiform tablets. Italy funded the extensive renovation of the conservation laboratory. The stolen but recovered Early Sumerian Warka Vase (showing the damage sustained by the vase while it was missing) and the Lady of Warka mask (held by the Iraq minister of culture, Mufid el-Jaza’iri, in the photo) are some of the many artifacts now being restored and conserved by technicians with the Iraqi-Italian Institute of Archaeological Sciences, who are working in the lab (and training Iraqis). Japan is paying for a new analytical lab, where archaeologists will analyze materials and techniques used by ancient craftsmen, date objects and perform other scientific tasks. The contract for a new and improved security system has been awarded. As of last May, according to museum director Donny George, $4 million had been received in donations from abroad, including $1 million from the U.S. State Department.

In September an Italian mission from the University of Rome was scheduled to begin the overdue restoration of the museum’s cuneiform tablets. They have decided that during the first phase, which will last several years, the tablets will be cleaned and restored. Only then can the tablets be catalogued.

Members of the museum staff have received training this year at the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. Such training is essential because Iraqi antiquities professionals have been largely isolated from the rest of the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

There were plans for a traveling exhibition of the cache of Neo-Assyrian gold and silver royal grave goods called the Treasure of Nimrud. The idea was launched early in 2003 as a fund-raising tool. Minister of Culture Mufid el-Jaza’iri, however, has made it clear that these splendid pieces should be exhibited in Iraq before they travel abroad. Except for a one-day exhibit in July 2003, they have not been shown to the public.

The National Museum never made an exhaustive inventory of all its holdings. Part of the reason is that the museum serves as a depository for artifacts from excavations throughout Iraq, so that the collection just keeps growing. Unfortunately, the storage room with excavated objects was ransacked thoroughly during those chaotic days of the second week of April 2003. The only way to understand the extent of the losses is to cross-check with the excavation reports—a very time-consuming task.

By March 2004, about 5,000 artifacts removed from the museum had been returned from the U.S., Italy, Jordan, France, Syria, Switzerland and other countries. A similar amount had been recovered inside Iraq. My estimate is that about 5 percent of the artifacts left in the public galleries are still missing, as well as 3 percent of the objects in the storage and conservation rooms. None of the artifacts stored in the Central Bank and in another secret location was stolen. I estimate that of the 501,000 total number of pieces in the museum, about 8,560 (2 percent) are not accounted for.

While some suggest optimistically that at least one museum gallery will open to the public by the end of 2004, most of the museum’s 18 galleries are not expected to open for a year or two.—F.D.