In one of the displays lay a skeleton in the earth it was found in, alongside rings and jars. A printed label beside it read: "A human skeleton found in situ, put beside him some Jars and rings between him dated to very old time."
The label on a fist-sized figurine of a monkey clutching his ears simply identifies it as "some monkey."
A hand-sized stone carving in one display case was described as "the legendary hero Gilgamesh wrestling with two lions, early 3rd millennium," with no further explanation of who Gilgamesh was — the Sumerian hero-king of one of the first written stories in history.
U.K.-based Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani, who follows the museum's renovations, said labels were lacking because the outdated inventory didn't list the pieces and the staff, lacking expertise, weren't familiar with the pieces' background. A U.S. State Department official advising on the renovation said it was better to display the pieces imperfectly than keep them hidden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.
But more problematic and confusing, the displays in the Sumerian halls mix in artifacts from the later Babylonian era, as well as from the Neanderthals, an entirely different hominid species from Homo Sapiens that died out some 30,000 years ago.
Mayah said the two halls would be renovated again this year. Sometime this year, he hopes, all the finished halls can be opened to the general public.
Other renovated halls fared better. Displays in the hall on Baghdad's Islamic dynasty were clear. Another hall explained the significance of the 5,000 year-old Arab city of Hatra, adorned with rare statues.
The museum's prize is the soaring Assyrian hall, chronicling the kingdom that rose to become a major empire in the region in the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. The hall is lined with stone etchings of giant winged creatures and statues of hand-clasped Assyrian kings.
Yet even here, at the hall's rear, lay the unidentified broken stone head the size of an exercise ball, bearded and wearing a crown. Nearby stood an empty pedestal labeled for a statue of Nimrod.
"Even the renovations that have been done are disappointing. I won't compare it to the great museums of the world, but still — it's way behind," said a U.N. adviser to the museum who spoke anonymously, not wishing to offend local staff.
Turf battles over the museum haven't helped.
The Culture Ministry and Tourism Ministry both claimed authority over the museum in 2005, confusing staff and delaying renovations. The body that directly oversees the museum — the State Antiquities Authority — was leaderless from 2006 onwards. In 2012, the Iraqi parliament finally definitively put the museum under the Tourism Ministry.
Ongoing violence, particularly suicide bombings ravaging Baghdad during most of the past 10 years, also kept away foreign experts who could have helped speed the process, said al-Gailani. The violence also means tourists are staying away from Iraq, reducing the incentive for staff to speed up renovations.
Although Iraq is relatively safer since the height of violence in 2007, there are still frequent attacks against government institutions, mostly the hallmark of al-Qaida.
Ultimately, the museum didn't have to be world-class, said al-Gailani.
"The antiquities are so unique and rich, sometimes you forget if they are exhibited well or not," she said.
The museum's woes mattered little to a visiting group of Iraqi schoolgirls. They rushed into the room, gaping at the statues, taking notes.
"It's not like television," said Sawsan Kadhim, 19. "Now if somebody says something about our history, I can say I saw it in reality."
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