The Kuwait National Museum is a well-respected institution that reflects the history and culture from this region of the Middle East. It was established in 1983 only to be looted and burned by the Iraqi invasion in 1990, at the hands of the military forces of Saddam Hussein. This paper reviews the many aspects of the museum and traces its history and its vision.
Why the Kuwait National Museum was built
According to the Kuwait National Museum website, the museum was originally built in order to have an appropriate place for the private historic collection of Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. The museum was first established in 1983, and a group of preservation specialists from various institutions came together as a group and helped the private collections become presented as a museum for the public to visit and learn from.
The specialists included Americans who had experience presenting historic items for public viewing. Dr. Marilyn Jenkins arrived in Kuwait from New York where she was involved in the production of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another American was Dr. Michael Bates, from the American Numismatics Society; and the third expert who attended to the origins of the museum was Manual Keene from the al-Sabah Collection (http://darmuseum.org.ke/dai).
The museum was also built for the reason that there is a wealth of beautiful Islamic art that needed to be on display so people from all walks of life and from all over the world could come and enjoy the art.
The vision of the museum
One vision of this museum is that the archaeological discoveries at Failaka -- and all important artifacts and historical items -- should be on display so the true history of the region can be known and appreciated. People need to have a vision of their cultural heritage. As for the vision of one of the museum's contributors, Sheikh Nasser said that he had always had an interest in Islamic art -- especially when his father sent him to school in Jerusalem -- but later in his life he became fascinated with the discoveries of ancient Islamic art.
He is quoted in the Saudi Aramco World (2000) as saying that his vision of the Islamic past has been made stronger by many visits to other great cities in the Islamic world. But his vision was just that, a vision, until his wife Hussah urged him to take the vision and turn it into reality. Hence, he began collecting Islamic art. His wife Hussah urged him to not only collect art but to put it in places where citizens and visitors could view it and appreciate it as well.
The mission of the museum
First of all -- initially -- the mission of the museum was to bring to a public venue many important historical items that reflect the history and culture of the Islamic world, in particular those historical items that are from the Kuwait region. The idea was to have a place that is beautiful and well-appointed and the public could come and visit three major exhibit halls, a planetarium, a conference center, and a re-designed antique cargo dhow. The mission also included lectures for children and adults, which turned the museum into more than just a place to view art and cultural items. It became a place of learning, and that was the mission (Saudi Aramco World).
The mission before Saddam Hussein's military forces destroyed much of the museum and stole numerous art pieces and artifacts, was to create a place that is comparable to the British Museum, and the Louvre in France, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Hussah said in the Saudi Aramco World article that she and her husband traveled the world together and had passionate interest in the Mamluk cooking pots in Yemen, and Syrian candlesticks in Delhi; they were on a mission to gather important items so the museum could be fulfilled.
The hostage display (not available)
The Failaka Island display
Failaka Island is about twenty kilometers north of Kuwait City; it is not a big island, only 12 kilometers long and about 6 kilometers wide, but it has been a place where early humans lived and thrived. It has harbors, fresh water, and soil that is good for growing crops (http://darmuseum.org). The artifacts show that humans lived on the Failaka Island dating back as far as the close of the 3rd millennium BC. Humans also lived on the island through the majority of the 20th century.
The island was known as Agarum, the land of the great God of Dilmun civilization. The island was located on a convenient trade route, and the raw materials that the Dilmun civilization had access to were traded to visiting cultures that offered processed goods in return. There is speculation among some scholars that Failaka Island is in fact the mythical Eden (as in the Garden of Eden discussed in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible), but that is, as was mentioned, speculation because there is no proof.
Alexander the Great is reported to have known about the Island, and he noted that it could be described as a beautiful place with wonderfully rich vegetation and wild animals. Archeologists have uncovered a number of important artifacts and even two churches that were built in ancient times. Those excavations were started in 1958, and they are continuing since many important discoveries have been revealed.
Artifacts on Failaka Island
The Island has been carefully searched by archeologists, and many objects of ivory and of wood have been discovered. Some of the door panels and furniture unearthed are known to have been from the 9th century CE, and ivory in particular has been found to have been used for sword and dagger hilts and also for decoration such as on belt buckles.
Metalwork has also been found on the island, some shaped in the form of certain animals. Animal shapes were carved into cast bronze shapes by Islamic metalworkers. Also copper alloy and brass were important alloys in the ancient world and brass was good for working with because it could be cut in patterns.
Stamp seals found on the Island are circular, with a reverse pattern of one or more parallel lines with a pair of circles on the side. These carvings (according to Mary Ann Tetreault with the Middle East Institute) are intricate, reflecting plants and animals. Did those stamp seals identify the owner of the seals? There is speculation to that effect. The excavations began in 1958, as was noted, and the first archeologists were Danish from the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus (Tetreault, p. 2).
Other archeologists came from other countries (Greece, England, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and they uncovered a temple that was dedicated to Artemis that contained many coins and idols. The coins were Greek, and they were found in a citadel which was likely a place for the administration of the Island. There is on the island remnants of a Christian church (likely Nestorian) and there are other churches perhaps of other faiths to be dug up.
Sadly, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, his forces also occupied Failaka and they stole or destroyed some of the most impressive artifacts from the Island. But the Iraqis aren't the only ones that did damage to the Island. Kuwaiti armed forces used the houses on Failaka Island as target practice, and moreover, visitors to the Island have been known to pick up historical artifacts and leave trash behind. Still, all the destruction notwithstanding, the National Museum of Kuwait is open and many artifacts (terracotta and engraved tools, animal fossils, blades and cutters from the Flint stone and Neolithic age, silver statues and bronze coins from the Bronze Age) are on display.