Tripoli, Libya—‘Now we have to hurry to do everything we want. Everyone from his place. Me, from this museum.” Fatheia al Howasi, the director of Libya’s National Museum since 2007, is soft-spoken, determined, and refreshingly honest in her serviceable English. She is also eager to get to work bringing the museum up to international standards and reopening it to the Libyan public—it has been closed since the revolution started in Benghazi on Feb. 17. Though the capital grows calmer every day, life is far from normal; armed men are ubiquitous and there is a serious shortage of cash. On Sunday, Ms. Howasi led me on an all-too-brief tour of the five-story structure, built in 1988 with Unesco help inside Tripoli’s 17th-century Saraya al Hamra, or Red Palace.
A 1984 graduate of Benghazi’s Garyounis University who has spent her entire career in Tripoli’s Department of Antiquities, Ms. Howasi tells the recent history of the museum without drama. While the museum was closed, she visited every day and her staff of 70 looked after the physical plant. When Moammar Gadhafi fled Tripoli on Aug. 19 and the uprising began, Ms. Howasi and the staff hid “some important small pieces“—a half-dozen glass display cases are still empty—but otherwise took no extraordinary measures.
Soon, revolutionary fighters from the Nafusa Mountains and nearby Zawiyah poured into Tripoli. (One of the major brigades that entered Tripoli hails from Zintan, Ms. Howasi’s hometown.) “Some thuwar [revolutionaries] came into the museum,” she says, but they damaged only the exhibits in the six galleries devoted to Gadhafi and smashed the windows of two of Gadhafi’s cars that are incongruously exhibited among Roman artifacts in one of the main galleries on the ground floor. (One is a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle from the 1960s.) Upstairs, the area that once held Gadhafi mementos is now empty. When I expressed the hope that the history of the Gadhafi period would not be lost to the next generation of Libyans, Ms. Howasi quickly agreed: “These things are for another time, but we need to remember and correct.”
Ms. Howasi says that the Gadhafi exhibits were the extent of the regime’s interference with the museum’s exhibition contents, though she also admits that the reason so few of the Arabic signs are translated into English is that the museum “was not allowed to write by English” during one period when Gadhafi burned foreign-language textbooks and forbade the teaching of foreign languages in schools. When he changed his mind in recent years, “somebody start and stop, somebody start and stop.” This, too, is typically Libyan: There is a sort of national attention-deficit disorder, perhaps the result of 42 years under a madly capricious ruler. When I visited, Ms. Howasi was unable to find any English guide or catalog to the museum.
While there are no classical pieces of earth-shattering importance—a fair amount of Libya’s classical heritage made its way to Italian and other European museums during the Italian occupation—there are vibrant, dynamic mosaics of daily life from the ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, many centered around fishing and sea creatures, and important panels from the arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna. The mosaics compare with the best in Tunisia, with tiny fragments that capture light and allow for great naturalism. But the Roman glass on show is mediocre, and even if the empty cases that once held jewelry and other small artifacts were full, they would not compare in extent with the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not to mention the Italian museums. The Islamic artifacts are substandard, which probably reflects the fact that Libya was a backwater for most of the postclassical period.
The well-traveled foreign visitor will be most thrilled by the pieces from Libya’s indigenous civilizations, mainly unfamiliar to Westerners. There is a fascinating bijou third-century mausoleum and panels of bas reliefs from Ghirza, south of Misrata, whose endearingly naive depictions of animals and foliage show a fusion of local and Greek art. There are also artifacts from the mysterious Garamantian desert empire, thought to be a Berber civilization. Work is still being done on the remote desert sites where these objects were found. The exhibits on Libya’s rich prehistoric heritage only hint at its splendor and importance. The vast desert covering most of the country below the Mediterranean coast contains some of the world’s finest prehistoric rock art—represented here mainly by photographs and reproductions—along with shards of the indigenous pottery and the 5,400-year-old mummy of a 7-year-old girl found in the Acacus Mountains in 1958.
Libyan cultural and educational institutions usually have a Rip Van Winkle quality, with decades-old signage, little Web presence, and an insular orientation—and the museum is typical. Libyans are not big on maintenance, and many of the light bulbs were out when I visited. But Ms. Howasi is quick to note that most of the improvements she hopes for are cosmetic. In her opinion, the museum does not need a major cash infusion. She did not ask for foreign help. (That is much more necessary to conserve Libya’s neglected archaeological treasures, as Saleh Alagab, head of the Department of Antiquities, has noted.) Ms. Howasi’s attitude, which is common here, reflects the pride and self-confidence of a people who won their freedom with their own blood. And the fact that the museum’s treasures were respected by the revolutionaries is an encouraging sign for Libya’s future.