John Russell (50), professor of archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, has been in Baghdad for seven months. He has served as the acting senior adviser of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. (The senior advisor has been, by agreement, an Italian, and Professor Russell has been in charge while the post has been temporarily vacant.) Professor Russell has helped to coordinate reconstruction of the National Museum and to improve security at archaeological sites around the country. His tour is about to come to a close, but before his departure from Baghdad, Jason Kaufman of The Art Newspaper spoke with him about the ongoing rebuilding of Iraq�s cultural infrastructure.
The Art Newspaper: Considering the reported increase in violence, you must feel constantly threatened. What is the security situation like for you?
John Russell: I feel a general level of danger. We get rocketed frequently. The bombings are directed at the Coalition headquarters, the so-called Green Zone, the main administrative area where we all live. It�s a few blocks from the Antiquities department complex where I spend a fair amount of time. I�m provided with security outside the Green Zone.
The biggest risk most of us academics take for our field is whether we'll get a job after the Ph.D. Professor Russell has been risking his life.
What is your general assessment of the work done to date?
JR: The general condition of the museum and library has been steadily improving. Archeological site looting seems to be improving, but it�s a job that will take more work. As long as there are poor people in Iraq it�s going to be a real challenge�especially while there are people willing to buy at the consumer end. But as far as I can tell the looting of sites has improved gradually, thanks particularly to the work of the Coalition, most notably in Nasiriya province where the Italian Carabinieri have made it a priority. Also in Babel province where the local CPA administration has set up an extensive site-protection system with a lot of guards, trucks and motorcycles. As far as I can tell that�s been providing pretty good protection. CPA has pledged $1 million in the south central region for equipment to protect archaeological sites. I haven�t seen if that�s been put into place yet.
Also, I am relieved to read that, contra the fears of the Telegraph/BBC in September, the security of Nimrud seems to have been maintained so far. There have been definite improvements overall during the last year, but much remains to be done. I hope that whoever replaces John Russell has the same energy and efficiency.