Google CEO Schmidt Makes Secret Visit to Iraq

Amira Edan, the director of Iraq’s National Museum, says that soon she will no longer have to worry so much that the famous institution remains closed to the public for fear of violence.

People will just be able to Google it. “It’s really wonderful,” she said Tuesday.

Eric Schmidt
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Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, had just made a presentation inside the museum, announcing that his company would create a virtual copy of the museum’s collections at its own expense, and make images of four millenniums of archaeological treasures available online, free, by early next year.

He was addressing Iraqi officials, journalists and American Embassy officials, along with a platoon of bodyguards, gathered at the museum in a small conference room with a 50-foot-high ceiling. “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and the ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Ambassador Christopher R. Hill described the project as “part of an effort spearheaded by the State Department to bring technology to Iraq. We thought, what better way to do that than bring Eric Schmidt here?”

The museum, badly looted during the American invasion, has been declared reopened three times: in 2003, by the American occupation authorities, again in 2007 by Iraqi officials and most recently in February by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

None of those openings, however, involved letting the public back in. A few invited scholars, journalists and the occasional school group have been allowed to visit. Only 8 of the museum’s 26 galleries have been restored; most of the collection’s treasures are in secret storage.

Jared Cohen, the State Department official who organized the visit, disputed a suggestion that the event seemed like a government-sponsored infomercial for Google. “This is a really good example of what we’re calling 21st-century statecraft,” he said. A dozen other companies are involved in the project to digitize the National Museum’s collections, so “it’s not an exclusive club,” he added.

“The reason we are focusing on Google is because Eric Schmidt is out here,” he said. “The State Department is not in the business of helping private companies figure out how to make a profit.”

Mr. Schmidt and his entourage, like the embassy officials, arrived at the museum in convoys of armored Suburbans, along with helicopter cover and snipers on neighboring roofs.

Certainly Mr. Schmidt deserves credit just for coming — he is very likely the most prominent corporate executive to visit Iraq. He visited a variety of Iraqi officials to discuss future information technology projects; until Tuesday’s event, his visit was kept secret. “We did a thorough security analysis before we came,” he said. “Still, people hear you’re going to Baghdad and they say, ‘Oh, no, Baghdad?’ ”

He was confident enough to bring along his daughter Sophie, a 2009 graduate of Princeton; she was listed as a consultant to Google. (She kept busy filming the event for YouTube, which Google owns.)

Still, less than a quarter-mile away, cranes and backhoes continued to excavate the rubble around the ministries of municipalities and justice, which were destroyed by a suicide bomb on Oct. 25. The bombing also broke windows in the museum, and may have caused structural damage to its walls, Ms. Edan said.

“We need a final solution to the security situation before we can open the museum,” she said. “Now at least people will be able to see the collections.”

Mr. Schmidt, speaking after his brief address, said he did not believe digitizing the museum’s collection would undercut its ability to raise money later, as many museums do, by selling images of its treasures.

“What typically happens is, it’s a demand creator,” he said. “They will still own the copyright to the images.”

Google’s efforts to digitize collections in libraries have provoked controversy and debate in the literary world.

What no one at the event mentioned was that the National Museum’s collections had already been digitized, at least in part, by Italy’s National Research Center, under a 1 million euro grant from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The collections went online last June as the Virtual Museum of Iraq.

Ms. Edan said that Web site, also made with the cooperation of the museum, was not extensive enough, and that the Italians did not do everything that Iraqi officials had asked. “This site is not sufficient,” she said, adding that she expected that Iraqi officials would have more control over the Google effort.

Massimo Cultraro, scientific director of the Virtual Museum, said in a telephone interview that the Web site was a collaboration among 100 scientists, computer technicians and historians. Google’s plans, he said, are to digitize as much as possible of the National Museum; it’s not as if they have to worry about storage space.

“We, too, could put more on our site,” Mr. Cultraro said, “but we wanted a selection that would show the history of Iraq and interpret its historical and cultural contributions.”

An American Embassy official, Diane Siebrandt, said Google’s effort would be more realistic. “The work by Google was all done in the actual halls, which will take the viewer through a real tour rather than a virtual visit.”

Mr. Cultraro said he welcomed the virtual competition. “My opinion is the cultural heritage of Iraq belongs to the whole world.”

After the news conference, Mr. Hill took questions on Iraq’s present election-law crisis. There are fears that a vice president will once again veto the law, forcing a further delay in January’s elections.

While he spoke, an embassy press officer suggested looking something up on the Web. “You can just Google it,” he said. “Pardon the pun, and that wasn’t intended as an advertising plug.”