Former Hussein palace transformed into archeological museum

Qahtan al-Abeed, the director of the Basra Section of Iraq’s State Board of Antiques and Heritage, has taken on a massive project. He and his team are planning on opening Iraq’s first new museum since 2003 in one of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s palaces. While there have been multiple obstacles in the construction and opening of the museum, Iraqi officials are hopeful that this will spark a cultural revolution in Basra.

Opening a new museum in an area so recently ravaged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria may seem like an unrealistic goal, especially when reminders of the conflict still linger. There are still occasional threats from a nearby Shiite Militia group, and the building itself—which previously served as a mess hall for the British army—still shows scars from several car bombs. Despite these issues, the area has recently achieved a degree of political stability, paving the way for the creation of a new museum.

Although it took two years to gain government approval, al-Abeed believes that the museum’s progress is a huge step in the right direction considering that this same area saw frequent fights between competing militias just a few years ago. The Basra government has agreed to contribute $3 million of this $3.5 million project, with the remaining funds backed mostly by charity from oil companies.

The museum is expected to include 3,500–4,000 artifacts from the ancient Sumer, Babylon, Assyria and Islamic periods. Due to looting instances in the past, al-Abeed plans to have large steel doors that can quickly be sealed in order to protect the treasures inside the museum. He doesn’t, however, want the strong security system to overpower the sense of openness necessary for the contemporary and interactive displays in the museum.

“We want a very modern museum that does more than just display objects,” al-Abeed said to National Geographic. “We want to bring in people for all kinds of art and cultural activities, including training courses and professional meetings.”

Hopefully the museum will bring the rich history of Basra and Iraq to the world’s attention. Founded in the year 636, Basra became an indispensable trade port as well as a center for the arts. The area remained mostly uninhabited until the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein used its land to create factories.

Fast-forward to today, and Basra is one of the least explored archaeological sites in the world, making it the prime location for a new museum. The city’s oil business is growing rapidly and the area around the city is currently undergoing rehabilitation.

Now that Basra is expanding, however, the demand for land is growing and stakes are high for al-Abeed and his organization. They continue to receive outside pressure to prove that the site houses significant archaeological remains. If they fail to do so, it could jeopardize the museum’s further development.

But al-Abeed is still marching forward with progress on the museum, as he is currently taking steps to list the area as a World Heritage site under UNESCO—hoping to protect and preserve the history of his home.