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Report by www.theguardian.com

Museum’s £3m government grant will equip future trainees in conservation and restoration of destroyed heritage sites in Iraq.

The British Museum is to establish a pilot program with heritage professionals in Iraq to train local museum curators, conservation technicians and archaeologists in heritage protection.

In the future, the project, for which the museum has won a £3m government grant, may be able to help tackle disasters such as the recent destruction of ancient monuments in Palmyra, Syria.

British Museum staff have been working in Iraq and inviting Iraqi staff to Bloomsbury since the war in 2003, when ancient sites including Babylon were damaged by military occupation and other museums and sites were shelled and looted.

Training is urgently needed to cope with the deliberate destruction of world famous sites including Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra by Islamic State.

The ancient site of Hatra in Iraq, before it was destroyed by Isis. Photograph: Antonio Cataneda/AP

The ancient site of Hatra in Iraq, before it was destroyed by Isis. Photograph: Antonio Cataneda/AP

A statement from the museum said direct intervention is currently impossible at sites still held by Isis, but the training will prepare for the day when return is possible.

“The scheme cannot stop further acts of cultural destruction but it can equip colleagues with the skills required to conserve and restore where possible and is an attempt to enable colleagues to preserve sites and objects of global significance,” the museum said.

It will recruit two archaeologists with field experience in the region for at least five years, who will lead six-month training programmes where trainees will spend three months at the British Museum and three months in Iraq, learning principles of rescue archaeology and site management. Training excavations will be set up in Kurdistan in the north and Basra in the south, both currently regarded as relatively secure.

The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, said the establishment of such a scheme was urgent. “Civilisations tell their stories through their art, which is why people who are hellbent on destruction, target it. Removing places and things that have helped to give people a shared sense of history and identity helps to undermine social cohesion and makes reconciliation less likely.

“Many heritage sites are used for military purposes to shield and conceal soldiers and weapons, and valuable objects are trafficked to finance warmongering. It must be tackled head on.”

Sir Ciarán Devane, chief executive of the British Council, said the funding was welcome. “It will enable us and partner organisations to increase the work we do to protect cultural sites around the world. In particular, we will be able to offer training in affected countries so that local experts can protect their own cultural assets for future generations.”

The announcement coincides with the opening of the museum’s exhibitionEgypt: Faith After the Pharaohs, which brings together the evidence for a period between the fall of the Roman empire and the Crusades, when the official religion of Egypt became first Christian and then Islam, but both faiths and Judaism coexisted and overlapped, largely peacefully.

It is the final exhibition from the British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, before he moves to Berlin. MacGregor, who will speak at a government sponsored conference on heritage protection on Thursday, said the exhibition was not explicitly stating the contemporary parallels – but every visitor would draw their own conclusions.

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