Corruption in Museums

By Simurgh Staff

Corruption can exist in any institution or organization, and museums are no exception, with significant ties to the political sphere. For a majority of Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian museums, looting has surfaced as the result of political turmoil—people take advantage of chaos and grab artifacts to sell for economic support. Museum personnel have also been the culprits of looting. This demonstrates how corruption can exist in museums, as some employees are no longer working to protect the artifacts. Corruption in the various levels of staff and management erodes at the integrity of museum personnel. 

Egyptian Museum Entrance Hall
Photo by Julianna Whalen, 2017.

Money is often the primary motivator of looters and low wages are one reason for corruption. At the National Museum in Egypt, security guards looted the very museum they were paid to protect1, because they do not get paid much. Their average salary is about 250 Egyptian pounds a month (about $15 USD), which is barely enough to live off of in the Egyptian economy.2 In Iraq, some museum officials have looted valuable items opportunistically and pawned the artifacts for extra money. This was the case when Iraqi museum officials unprofessionally removed objects from the Kuwait National Museum.3 Officials have questioned and denied their colleagues’ involvement in the lootings, but how else could the perpetrators know exactly how to retrieve such objects without being caught?4  

“The National Museum in Kuwait”
Photo by Kuwaitsoccer. CC BY-SA 3.0 US.
“Iraq National Museum”
Photo by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0.

The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was severely looted during the 2003 invasion of United States troops.6 Many speculated that the looting was carried out by two sets of people—“Baghdadis off the street, and professionals with inside information about the museum.”7 Evidence also suggests that Saddam Hussein’s administration permitted and possibly even encouraged a large-scale systematic looting of cultural artifacts from Iraqi museums8. The United States was also accused of being part of the Baghdad looting, but the results of that investigation have been inconclusive.9 Nonetheless, the looting is considered an inside job, as several museum officials claim:  

After the looting a set of master keys to the museum was discovered in a plundered storeroom. The keys belonged to al-Mutawalli, who museum employees say kept them in her office safe, which only she could open. She told me that no one else had access to the keys, but she could not explain their presence in the storeroom.10  

However, some “corrupt” museum officials have been wrongly accused. Dr. Zahi Hawass (curator of the National Museum in Egypt) had this happen to him. Disregarding the status of the accusation, Hawass withdrew from his job as Chief of Antiquities. Hawass had distaste for the corruption within Egyptian’s government, “‘Those people are insects, they are nothing.’”5 With instability in government and the loss of state protection, museums have been left to their own resources—which are not always safe or effective. This also contributes to the use of a scapegoat, as demonstrated by the case of Dr. Zahi Hawass,  when it comes to looting and corruptions. 

Through the political turmoil of recent decades and the high profit capacity of the black-market, museums have become ripe for looting by their own officials. However, lack of transparency and inadequate investigations hinder the ability to determine how artifacts are removed and who is at fault during museum lootings. 

  1. Former Egyptian Museum Dir Says Looting Inside Job, Memphis Mus Looted [UPDATE 40] Damaged Mummy ID’d, Sinai Antiquities Robbed 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Indiana Jones or Inside Job at Iraq Museum? 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Taylor, Kate. “Egypt’s Chief of Antiquities Says He’s Not Staying On.” New York Times, March 4, 2011, A12(L). Infotrac Newsstand (accessed April 12, 2019). 
  6. Museum Madness in Baghdad 
  7. The Thieves of Baghdad 
  8. Ibid.
  9. Three Years After Looting of Iraqi National Museum: An Official Whitewash of US Crime 
  10. The Thieves of Baghdad