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GW’s Museum Studies Program Hosts Iraqi Curators
Participants tour dozens of the nation’s premier museums as part of a residency program.
August 06, 2012
Twenty-three Iraqi artists and curators traveled to Washington this summer to learn from one of the top museum training programs in the U.S.
In partnership with the State Department, George Washington University’s Museum Studies Program held an Iraqi Museum Residency Program to help Iraq restore and rebuild its cultural heritage.
“Because of the war and its effects on the countryside, Iraqi museum professionals have been unable to get access to professional development or travel freely to museum conferences,” said Kym Rice, director of GW’s Museum Studies Program in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “Many museums had to close due to looting and fighting and are only recently reopening. Ultimately, what we are providing through this residency program is a form of cultural diplomacy.”
In 2010, GW received a $340,000 grant from the State Department to run the residency program for Iraqi museum professionals. Ms. Rice and her colleagues spent the next two years developing the program, of which GW contributed another $100,000 to, while the U.S. Embassy in Iraq selected the program’s participants. Each participant went through a rigorous application process, and in the end 23 were chosen and split up into two groups. The first group arrived at GW in the beginning of June, and the second came in early July.
During the month-long program, the residents, who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, attended classes taught by GW faculty on collections management, conservation, museum management and strategic planning, facilities management, emergency preparedness and museum education. And to put into practice what they learned in the classroom, the program participants got to visit many of the nation’s capital’s museums.
“The residency program was very extensive and comprehensive,” said Ehab, one of the program participants. The participants’ surnames are being withheld for security reasons.
Ms. Rice took the group to the National Gallery of Art’s conservation lab where the students got to learn how art is safely preserved. At the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center – where the museums store all of the objects not currently on display – the residents examined hundreds of artifacts including fish specimens, human remains and a statue of Buddha. Other visited museums included the National Air and Space Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, the National Geographic Museum and the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens.
“We’ve been around a long time. We have a lot of connections through our more than 900 alumni, and our faculty are all over the place too so we were able to use those connections and get a lot of special tours,” said Ms. Rice.
The residents were especially impressed with the design of the museums’ exhibits.
“I found the ways that the museums display objects particularly interesting. There is a careful selection of objects together with an interpretation,” said Haitham.
The group also traveled to the University of Pennsylvania, which is home to the largest collection of ancient Iraqi artifacts in the U.S., and to New York City so the students could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see the Statue of Liberty.
“It was really important to them to see the Statue of Liberty because to them, it means freedom,” Ms. Rice said. “Seeing them discover America was really cool and very touching at times.”
Some of the residents even got the chance to show off some of their artwork at the District’s Iraqi Cultural Center.
Ms. Rice hopes GW can offer the residency program again next summer to a new cohort of students. She’s also promised to stay in touch with this year’s students by continuing to offer assistance remotely.
“There’s a big push in the museum profession to be connected globally,” she said. “We hope the skills and strategies they learned here will help restore and strengthen their preservation and exhibition work back in Iraq.”