Vol. XXII, No. 2
CSA Newsletter Logo
September, 2009

Web Site Review: The Virtual Museum of Iraq

Jack Cheng
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

CSA Newsletter Comment

The Virtual Museum of Iraq

The Virtual Museum of Iraq serves as an excellent multimedia introduction to the history and archaeology of Iraq, from prehistoric times through the Islamic period. Users can "turn" objects to see 360-degree views, watch short videos that explain concepts and introduce time periods, and have access to maps and plans of archaeological sites. There is, however, a major problem with the site that is big enough that it colors everything good about the site and makes it impossible for me to give a whole-hearted endorsement of this project.

The Virtual Museum of Iraq can be found at www.virtualmuseumiraq.cnr.it, and can be accessed in English, Arabic, and the language of its creators, Italian. (Because of the way the html code is written, there are no links to individual pages and therefore there are no links to pages in this review.) After a flash video introduction to the Virtual Museum, the site delivers the user to the "Museum" itself, a Main Entrance with eight different doors leading to various "halls:" Prehistoric, Sumerian, Akkadian and Neo-Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Achaemenid and Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian, and Islamic.

Each hall looks like a museum space, with about eight objects in a room and a map on a wall (or in one case, a ceiling). Clicking on any linked item will zoom the viewer closer to the object and offer some options for further examination. The helmet of Meskalamdug in the Sumerian Hall, for example, gives the options of "Description," "Explore" or "Video."

"Description" brings up text and image. First, a museum label type text:

This information is followed by a paragraph that describes the cemetery of Ur, gives details about the so-called "royal graves," and describes the helmet with a precision that helps draw the novice's eye to details of construction or iconography that they might otherwise miss. An image of the helmet sits on the right side of this page.

"Explore" loads a full 360-degree image of the helmet. Actually, because it can rotate on two axes, the range of motion is not circular but spherical. This is where academic language breaks down and I have to resort to saying that this is simply really, really cool. You can turn the helmet around, flip it up to see the interior, and flip it over again to examine it from the top.

Having never been to Baghdad and the National Museum of Iraq, this is the closest I have come to seeing some of these objects in the round. Until I used this website, I did not know what the back of the famous head of a woman from Warka looked like. (It's flat with six holes in it.) The creators of the website are to be applauded for programming this feature and for publishing these objects in such an extensive fashion.

I should note that the "Explore" feature does not offer the same features for every object. For some objects, users will find interactive panning; for others, users are shown a simple slide show featuring different views or details of the object.

"Video" is not an option for every object, but in the case of the helmet of Meskalamdug, a five-minute film plays in a window. This particular film starts with a voice-over description of the helmet as a virtual camera "zooms" around it. This leads into a more general description of the cemetery at Ur and then a specific description –- the excavator Leonard Woolley's words -– is read over computer reconstructions of the grave.

I must admit a general dislike of computer reconstructions and animations in documentaries because I feel they tend to fix interpretative images in people's heads; I prefer giving the facts and letting each viewer fill in the missing pieces as they might imagine it (see "The Compelling Computer Image - a double-edged sword," Harrison Eiteljorg, II; in Internet Archaeology at http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue8/eiteljorg_index.html). However, in this case, the production is so slick and polished, and the camera angles so obviously invented, that no one would (I hope!) believe that Leonard Woolley had a Steady-cam on site in 1928 to record the grave of Meskalamdug. The recreations are quite beautiful and filled with enough special effects (for example, a skeleton crumbling to dust as Woolley describes the final form of Meskalamdug's corpse) that I think they define themselves as interpretation rather than fact.

The narration is admirably comprehensive yet succinct; in general, the quality of the video material is up to par with those in major museum displays. The video that traces the beginnings of written language (accessed through the cuneiform table in the Sumerian Hall) is not that different than what a student might hear in a classroom.

I mentioned that each hall includes a map on a wall. Clicking on a map, zooms the user forward, offers the heading: "Historical and Geographical Background," and gives two choices: "Explore Map" and "Explore Timeline." The first calls up a scrollable map with red marked links to relevant sites. Clicking through on those sites brings up archaeological site plans. The Timeline is presented as a scrollable table that can be used to locate the Sumerian period (for example) in relation to other periods.

I've focused here on the Sumerian Hall because I am familiar with the period and feel better able to judge the accuracy of the content. Having gained confidence from those early halls, I felt open to learning from the halls featuring later periods.

Overall, I found the site both educational and entertaining, although I'm saving the fatal flaw for the end of this review. But first, some nitpicking:

The Virtual Museum of Iraq introduces users to the history and archaeology of Iraq through a "medium" most people understand: the museum. Museums gather and organize information, and good curators present history through wonderfully engrossing narratives. While visiting the Virtual Museum of Iraq, I was struck by the thought that museums define the public's knowledge on particular subjects. As we read text panels and labels or follow docents through a museum, we tend to put our faith in the institution, accepting information uncritically. Truly, I thought, the Virtual Museum of Iraq is a triumphant outreach program of the Baghdad Museum.

Except it's not.

At all.

The Virtual Museum of Iraq has no official affiliation with the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

This is an entirely Italian production. Looking on the credit page (it's listed on the footer of every page but I could only access it from the very first page, before choosing a language), there is a list of Italian names. The first Arabic name I saw belonged to Donny George, under "Thanks."

Don't get me wrong: This is a terrific, Italian-produced website that teaches the public about the history of Iraq.

The problem is, the site pretty much pretends to be an official organ of the Baghdad Museum, and given the suffering of that institution in recent years, this seems indecent.

I'm sure the creators meant no offense. Surely the mistake lies with me. How, you might ask, were you so stupid to think that the virtual "Museum of Iraq" was related to the Iraq Museum? Let me count the three major ways:

1. The museum in Baghdad has an official Arabic name and multiple translated names: National Museum of Iraq, Iraq Museum, Baghdad Museum. Museum of Iraq is close enough to be confusing.

2. All of the objects shown in the site belong to the Iraq Museum.

Okay, we can maybe give a pass on these first two. Iraq Museum, Museum of Iraq; it's a museum about the history of Iraq – what else are you going to call it? And anyone who has dealt with publishing in print or on the web knows the hassles with getting reproduction permissions – if you can get objects from the Iraq Museum, use them. But then comes the third reason I was fooled into thinking this was an official website of the National Museum of Iraq.

3. The introductory video. I mentioned that there is a video introduction to the museum that plays before you get to the Main Entrance Hall. Allow me to describe it. We start with a map of Iraq. It turns into a satellite image. We zoom in, down, down, to the city of Baghdad, and then to a particular city block in the city. The plan of a building can be seen. The view shifts; no longer are we looking directly down, but now we are at an angle, seeing the building rise up from it's floorplan. Fade out. Fade back in with a black and white historic photograph with the caption "1926." More historical photographs of the same building. We see the sign above a door: "Iraq Museum." A series of photographs shows the creation of a monumental doorway to the museum. We return to the "virtual reality" museum and are swept into the Virtual Museum of Iraq.

This video was designed specifically to convince visitors that this virtual museum has a direct relationship to the National Museum of Iraq. It is purposefully deceptive. No excuses.

So here's the problem. This is a great website, an excellent learning and teaching tool. But I cannot endorse it because I do not trust it; it intentionally fools the public about the basic institutional patronage of the site.

As it happens, the actual National Museum of Iraq is in the process of building a website of its own at http://www.theiraqmuseum.org. I have to admit, it would take a lot of work to top the excellent site the Italians have created in the Virtual Museum of Iraq but when complete, the Iraqi site will be the true online voice of the National Museum of Iraq. As of this writing (September 2009), the Virtual Museum is the 12th site listed under a Google search of "Museum of Iraq" (16th for "Iraq Museum"). When the official Iraq Museum site is unveiled, I hope the public finds the site they are looking for.

-- Jack Cheng

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