The Friends of Basrah Museum was founded in 2010 by a group of interested UK based individuals with the initial concept first discussed at a lunch in the British Museum in September 2007, involving Major General Barney White-Spunner, Neil MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum and Dr John Curtis, then Keeper of the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. The lunch had been arranged to provide Major-General White-Spunner with up to date information about the state of Iraq’s cultural heritage, as he was due to be deployed there in February 2008 as Commander-in-Chief of British troops and General Officer Commanding the Multi-National Division South-East.
At the lunch, it was suggested that the greatest need would be to arrange for the inspection of archaeological sites and the protection/refurbishment of museums. General White-Spunner appointed Major Hugo Clarke as the manager of this project. In the course of 2008, the British Army visited and inspected all museums in their area of command, and decided that Basrah offered the only chance of a viable project. The British forces in the Coalition had had primary responsibility for securing the Basrah region and for a while used one of former President Saddam Hussein’s palaces on the Shatt al-Arab, named the Lakeside Palace, as a dining hall until they moved out to the camp near the airport. So the Palace was already well known when the proposal to develop an Iraqi-British project to protect and promote cultural heritage in Southern Iraq was first mooted and to convert the Lakeside Palace into a new museum as part of the British legacy to Basrah.
Detailed plans of the Palace were drawn up by the Royal Engineers, and the army made contact with the young director of the existing Basrah Museum, Mr Qahtan Al Abeed, who at great personal risk made frequent visits to British army headquarters in their airport base. He embraced the project enthusiastically as the existing Basrah Museum was not fit for purpose. It was located in an old courtyard house, in poor condition, in an insecure part of the town, and was unsuitable for displaying and safeguarding high value archaeological and historical material. (It has since become the offices of the Basrah Antiquities & Heritage.) British army surveyors produced an estimate of the cost of refurbishing the Palace and fitting it out but the army withdrew from Basrah a year later and the project would probably have foundered as there was no official British funding available to carry it forward.
Major Hugo Clarke approached Dr John Curtis to see if the British Museum might be able to help. The Museum was not in a position to undertake such a project directly at the time but Dr John Curtis, who was shortly to retire and to take up the position of Keeper for Special Projects at the Museum, agreed to explore with Qahtan Al Abeed the possibilities of forming an independent body in the UK to raise the necessary funds. Mr Al Abeed welcomed the idea and Dr Curtis took some soundings among potentially interested bodies in the UK, such as the British Institute for the Study of Iraq and the British Iraqi Friendship Society, with the result that in December 2009 a small group came together to discuss the way forward. As a consequence of these discussions, Sir Terence Clark, a former British Ambassador to Iraq, and Dr Curtis visited Basrah in April 2010 to see the Lakeside Palace and to discuss with the local authorities the possibilities of developing it as a museum.
Dr Curtis and Sir Terence were very impressed with the building, which was beautifully decorated in the Moorish style with ornate carved woodwork and painted stucco and appeared in reasonably good condition. Dr Curtis considered the configuration of the building eminently suitable for a museum. Preliminary discussions were had with the Basrah authorities, who pledged their support. Mott MacDonald’s representative in Basrah was asked to carry out a survey of the building and to give a fresh estimate for its refurbishment as a museum. In June 2010 they produced a figure of $3 million for the refurbishment and a further $2 million for the display cases, making a daunting total of $5 million. The informal group felt that there were grounds for believing the project was feasible and that they could move forward to the next stage. In November 2010, the Friends of the Basrah Museum, was formally registered as a charity with a Board of Trustees, composed of Sir Terence Clark as Chairman, Dr Curtis as Secretary, Ms Liane Butcher as Treasurer, Ms Clare Bebbington , Dr Lamia al-Gailani,, Dr Salah Al-Shaikhly, former Iraqi Ambassador to the UK and the Hon. Alice Walpole, then British Consul-General in Basrah.
The Trustees needed to obtain the formal agreement of the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and Basrah to convert the Lakeside Palace to a museum. On 1 December 2010, the Iraqis sent over a delegation, led by the Chairman of the State Board for Antiquities to sign with FOBM Chairman Sir Terence Clark a Memorandum of Understanding, providing the official basis for the museum project.
This was followed by a large reception, sponsored by BP, in, appropriately enough, the Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, at which the appeal for funds was launched.
The fund raising campaign among British companies working in Iraq, public institutions and private individuals with an interest in Iraq took time to organise. During 2011 funds were raised from BP with a major donation of $500,000. Other donations were made by Petrofac, Pulse Brands, IPBD Limited and The Charlotte Bonham-Carter Charitable Trust, as well as a number of private individuals. The Basrah Provincial Council also agreed to pay towards the cost of the display cases and later pledged a further funds for the refurbishment of the museum building and galleries. The Iraqi authorities recognised that they would be responsible for the staffing and operating costs when the project was complete. The SBAH would also provide the objects for display, largely from Baghdad, but also locally. With these efforts and initial funds, the Trustees felt that the project could go ahead. Mott MacDonald agreed to oversee the management of the project. Further progress was then thwarted by the unexpected news that the Basrah Investment Council had occupied the Lakeside Palace and could not move out until they had found alternative premises. This meant that the FOBM had to mark time for about a year and it was only in January 2012 that the building was vacated and Mott MacDonald could reassess the situation and prepare a programme of works. On the basis of the works programme, the FOBM Trustees were able to go out to tender and appointed a local firm, Bur Alaman to undertake the work.
While the Trustees were planning to ensure that funds raised would be concentrated in an identifiable element of the whole project, outside events threatened to derail it completely. First, there was no federal budget set and large areas of public expenditure were put on hold. Subsequently the oil price collapsed and there were no funds available for the Basrah Provincial Council to keep its pledge of funds. As a result, the FOBM had only the funds raised in the UK. The Trustees decided despite these major setbacks that they should propose to the Basrah and Baghdad authorities that the project should go ahead using the funds to secure the building as a whole and to prepare the Marbled Hall as a Basrah exhibition with the adjacent Babylon Gallery as an education centre, leaving it to them to complete the project when funds became available. This was accepted as the only way to proceed and detailed planning commenced.
FOBM needed a project manager in Basrah to supervise the work and on Mott MacDonald’s recommendation the Trustees reached agreement early in 2015 year with Peter Hunt, one of their former employees in Basrah, who had set up his own engineering consultancy, HWH & Associates, and he was familiar with the project. HWH & Associates estimated the restoration work would take three months to complete. On that basis and taking into account the time it would take to install the display cases and to select the items for display with all the necessary signage in Arabic and English, FOBM thought there could be a launch date around the turn of the year. Permission to proceed was sought again with the Baghdad and Basrah authorities and the go-ahead was given. The refurbishment was complete before the end of 2015 but it took longer than expected to select the main items for display from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and to prepare the signage. The German company Reier had been selected under tendering arrangements to supply the display cases for the gallery. An opening date for the new Basrah Gallery was set for 27 September 2016 to be the date for the official opening. The opening of the Basrah Gallery was a major success for Basrah and the region and fostered the collaboration between the UK and Iraq. This step in the project represented the culmination of the first phase of the completion of new Basrah Museum, which was made possible by the generosity of the donors, particularly BP, the Iraqi authorities, HWH & Associates, Bur Alamaan and with the total dedication of the Museum’s Director, Qahtan Al Abeed without whom the first phase of this project could not have been completed.
This FOBM background summary of the new Basrah Museum project is based on a talk delivered by FOBM Chairman Sir Terence Clark to The Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC) in July 2016. At the end of his talk (PDF download here), he summarised the following
The project will have taken six years to bring to fruition but we hope that at the end of the day we shall have achieved part of a much needed resource for southern Iraq, which in the fullness of time will set a new standard for the whole region. It will also serve as a positive demonstration of British support for the redevelopment of Iraq in the post-Saddam era. My deep regret is that we did not have the funds to finish the job; and we have had no indication from the Iraqis when they might have the funds to complete their part. If, however, we could secure another $2- 2.5 million in the coming months, everything is in place for us to carry out the rest of the work. So I am open to offers! I should add that we are preparing to bid for funds from the Government’s recently announced Culture Protection Fund of £30 million. However, if we are unsuccessful, the Friends of the Basrah Museum will have to be wound up. But strong links have already been forged between the new Museum and the British Museum and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), which will help to maintain and further develop the relationship with Britain into the future. BISI are indeed supporting the launch with a public workshop and conference in Basra on 28 and 29 September, which will be attended by a number of international experts, who will help to create resources for the Museum to draw upon and to explore options for future collaboration.
Phase Two – Cultural Protection Fund (CPF) Grant award
In June 2016 the British Council announced the establishment of a £30 million fund in partnership with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to help create sustainable opportunities for economic and social development through building capacity to foster, safeguard, and promote cultural heritage affected by conflict overseas. Dr John Curtis on behalf of the FOBM Trustees sent an expression of interest form regarding the completion of the new Basrah Museum as the Trustees considered that the completion of project would provide a lasting positive legacy for the people of Basrah and Iraq and would contribute to the promotion of cultural heritage in the region. The Trustees received confirmation of their eligibility to apply in July 2016. Dr Curtis and Joan Porter MacIver, FOBM Volunteer, completed the application and submitted it to the British Council. The competition for these grant awards was very tough and the Trustees had no certainty of success. During the opening of the Basrah Gallery and the two day BISI sponsored workshop in late September, the Director of the Museum and some attendees were aware of the FOBM application but it was very important not to raise any expectations and it was not generally discussed. FOBM Trustee Dr John Curtis delivered an address at the opening and there were presentations by a number of Iraqi dignitaries. Other FOBM Trustees attended the opening: Dr Lamia al-Gailani Werr, Liane Butcher. Clare Bebbington and future Trustee, Hugo Clarke.
In December 2016 the first round of grants were awarded for seven CPF funded projects and a grant of up to £460,000 was awarded to the Trustees of the Friends of Basrah Museum for the completion of the new Basrah Museum. The Trustees appointed Joan Porter MacIver, BISI Trustee and former BISI/BSAI London Administrator, as the UK coordinator for the project, with the approval of the British Council. The Trustees appointed new Trustees to be involved with the project: Angela Grimshaw, to be Hon Treasurer, Hugo Clarke, and Ian McGregor. Dr Al-Shaikly and Hon. Alice Walpole stepped down from their Trustee roles in December 2016. During December 2016 and January 2017 the fund requirements to commence were met and in mid-January the FOBM finally received the permission to start the grant funded project. The Iraqi authorities had agreed to the FOBM coordinating this project and the Basrah Provincial Council is also assisting with the Museum’s refurbishment.
Close cooperation between the British Council grant managers and the FOBM is being developed and the British Council provided crucial support for the necessary procurement procedures for the bids for the manufacturing of 54 Museum Display cases for the remaining three galleries to be delivered to the Basrah Museum. After an EU procurement process the bid was awarded on a competitive basis to Reier, who supplied the display cases for the first phase of the project in the Basrah Gallery. This expenditure represents over half of the grant funding and remaining funds are targeted to hold training programmes for museum staff and volunteers on exhibition development, interpretation, graphic design, conservation and scientific analysis. These programmes will be undertaken by a range of UK and international professionals.
Over the coming two years the FOBM will be working closely with the British Council, the Basrah Museum and its Director, Qahtan Al Abeed, the Basrah Provincial Council, and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to implement the completion of the Basrah Museum in keeping with the goals of the Cultural Protection Fund for the people of Basrah, the Southern region and for all of Iraq and to be an important legacy of the British administration in Southern Iraq. The project is due to be completed by March 2019.