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Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past

  • Iraq National Museum: Damage to museum’s façade. Photo Credit: Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly
    A U.S. tank outside the children's section of the IraqNational Museum. On April 8, 2003, a gaping hole in the façade of this gateway was made by a U.S. tank round. The Assyrian winged bull in the gateway is similar to the one on display in the Yelda Khorsabad Court in the Oriental Institute Museum. Photo Credit: Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly.
  • Isin: Aerial view. Photo Credit: Carabinieri
    At a distance, the extent of looting at Umma and the surrounding area is highly visible. However, the scarred landscape tells only half the story: at the bottom of some of these pits are horizontal tunnels dug by looters in an attempt to stay out of the desert sun and exploit the most profitable layer of artifacts. This image was taken during a helicopter flight over archaeological sites conducted by the Carabinieri, an Italian military police unit stationed in Iraq from June though November 2003. Photo Credit: Carabinieri.
  • Seals: Artifacts for sale. Photo Credit: Dr. Donny George Youkhanna
    This box of artifacts was on sale in a Baghdad market. Iraq National Museum identification numbers are visible on many cylinder seals inside the box. Photo Credit: Dr. Donny George Youkhanna.

Extended until February 9, 2014

The premiere North American engagement of Mesopotamia: Inventing our World, presented by RSA Insurance is complemented by Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past.  Developed by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.


The looting of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum in April 2003 during the Iraq war shocked the world. Priceless antiquities were stolen or destroyed, devastating one of the world’s most important museums of ancient culture. An extensive database, accessible to international researchers, had been developed and maintained by the museum. The destruction of these records was a great blow to world scholarship. Looting was not confined to this one prominent site. During the Iraq war, numerous of the country’s archaeological sites were ransacked with artifacts either stolen or destroyed. 

Dr. Clemens Reichel, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the University of Toronto, Associate Curator of Ancient Near East in the ROM’s Department of World Cultures, and ROM curatorial representative for Mesopotamia has just returned from a research trip to Iraq. He is pleased that the ROM commemorates this event by hosting Catastrophe! in tandem with Mesopotamia, saying “The exhibits complement each other well:  Mesopotamia conveys the splendour of this ancient culture while Catastrophe! reminds us of the dangers to which it remains exposed.” The topic is close to Reichel’s heart. Following the 2003 looting in Iraq, Reichel, a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute, coordinated the creation of a web-based database. This tool aided international law enforcement officials in the recovery of some of the stolen artifacts.


In creating this award-winning exhibition, Chicago’s Oriental Institute strove to educate the public on the devastation of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Catastrophe: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past debuted at the Oriental Institute in April 2008.  A travelling version was presented at a number of international venues upon its Chicago closing. To mark the tenth anniversary of the museum’s looting, the Oriental Institute’s McGuire Gibson and Katharyn Hanson updated the display’s content. This revised presentation premieres at the ROM. Serving as a reminder that Iraq’s cultural heritage is still under threat, no artifacts are displayed. Text and images powerfully communicate the war’s tragic effects and the continued impact on Iraq’s cultural, archaeological, and heritage sites.  Six sections comprise the show, providing background and context: Introduction; The Museum; Archaeological and Heritage Sites in Iraq; The Importance of Archaeological Context; Looted Artifacts; and What Has Been Done: What Can be Done? Protecting the Past.

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ROM Ancient Cultures

ROM Ancient Cultures is the Museum’s newest Centre of Discovery. ROM Ancient Cultures seeks to be recognized globally as an essential destination for making sense of how past societies inform our lives and help us plan for the future. This Centre provides a focal point for research, programs and activities related to Ancient Cultures and Archaeology at the ROM and in the community. Follow @ROMAncient on Twitter.

This exhibit was developed, written and produced at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.