The Soul of a Nation

As reported in the New York Times, on Monday February 23, 2009, less than six years after it was looted in the initial invasion of Baghdad, the Iraq Museum reopened for visitors. The opening of the museum (also known as the Baghdad Museum), however, was limited to politicians like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and journalists — the general public has not been allowed in. According to the Times, the Prime Minister pushed for the opening against the advice of his Ministry of Culture.

There are two prevailing opinions of this milestone. On the one hand, the opening of the museum would appear to mark the progress made in Iraq since the invasion. On the other hand, the fact that the opening was basically a well-constructed photo op reinforces the idea that any progress in Iraq has basically been cosmetic.

I have no further knowledge of the conditions of the museum beyond the photographs and the video available on the New York Times website. I have to take the word of the curators who say that the museum is in disarray and without proper security and the statements of the politicians who say that this is an important step forward in the reassertion of Iraqi identity.

(In another post on this site, I’ve argued that the museum and the Mesopotamian heritage it represents has been vital to the identity of Iraq itself, whether under Saddam or others; and that shared history may be the only way for Iraqis to think of themselves as Iraqis again, rather than as Sunnis or Kurds, or Tikritis.)

Whether this reopening begins a new era of rebuilding or symbolizes the unmasking of an illusion, time will tell. However, the speculation itself has import.

Two days later, the Times printed another article, this one on the shrinking of humanities departments in American universities, from the Ivy League on down, and the need for the humanities to justify their worth in worrisome economic times.

I found the contrast amusing and disturbing. The health of an entire nation was being judged by its museum of history and archaeology while a much wealthier and stable country was looking for ways to save money on its own cultural studies.

This made me think about the humanities as the soul of a nation.

I'm not a religious person, or even particularly spiritual, but as I understand it, the soul is the ineffable, existential core of a being, and the seat of its moral values and ethical choices. If the humanities are the soul of a nation, the institutions that nourish that soul, universities and museums and theaters and the like, are analogous to churches and mosques and temples and shrines — they don't create the soul, but they remind us to think about our souls, to do "soul-searching."

The soul cannot be measured or valued in dollars, although in music we attribute soul to expressions of depth of experience; Billie Holiday had it but Taylor Swift is too young to have it yet. It can't be measured, and yet we value it above all else. Is there a worse insult than to call someone "soulless"? (As in, the "soulless bank CEOs who profited on our collective misery"?)

I don't know what the reopening of the Iraq Museum means exactly, but I do know that the Iraqi people are intensely interested in the state of their culture and the institutions that help express that culture. I worry about the fact that Americans don't seem to have the same urgency toward their own culture.

Author: Jack Cheng

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