The "Great Lyre" of Ur (2550-2400 BC), with its golden bull's
head, is just one of the dazzling objects on display at a new
exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But next
to it is a photo of another one of these extremely rare lyres. It
has gone missing, part of the looting that has taken place across
Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Similar photos appear throughout the Met's latest blockbuster
exhibition, "The Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC
from the Mediterranean to the Indus," which opened Thursday and
continues through Aug. 17. They serve as reminders of magnificent
ancient art that may be lost forever.
Mesopotamia, a region roughly the equivalent of modern Iraq, is
the focus of the Met show, which aims to spotlight this "cradle of
civilization" and demonstrate how it influenced early cultures as
far away as Greece in the West and the Indus River Valley in the
East, in what is today Pakistan.
The exhibit has been a bittersweet undertaking for curator Joan
Aruz, who has spent the past five years planning to display some 400
objects from 16 countries and nearly 50 public and private
Her "great hope" was to help people appreciate the value of this
art, she says. "Now it's taken on an even greater significance
because it's a way of keeping the story [of Iraq's looted art] in
the public eye, a way of educating the public to what is lost." The
objects in the show "stand almost as a tribute," she says, "because
they remind you of what is not there."
Though the show is impressive in its breadth, "the major
collection was in Iraq," she says, including countless "absolute
masterpieces that are irreplaceable." In addition, new undocumented
objects were coming into Iraqi museums constantly, so just what has
been lost may never be fully understood. "If the loss is as great as
we think it is, ... it just appears that this is a major, major
Martha Sharp Joukowsky, a professor of archaeology and art at
Brown University in Providence, R.I., estimates that perhaps "90
percent" of the ancient findings that have been unearthed in Iraq
were still in the country before the recent looting. The materials
in the Met show, she says, represent those collected before laws
changed to require artifacts to remain in their country of origin.
In retrospect, Ms. Joukowsky says, one can say, "Thank God!" some
objects had gone abroad.
In the late 1990s, the Met's director asked his curators to
propose shows that could celebrate the coming of the third
millennium A. …