Factional violence has engulfed Sudan, and the country’s museums are caught in the crossfires, prompting calls from artists and museum professionals to safeguard its imperiled cultural heritage.
Last week, the International Council of Museums published a report from Sara Abdalla Khidir Saeed, director of the Sudan Natural History Museum, detailing the dire circumstances of numerous institutions.
“Museums are now without guard to protect them from looting and vandalism,” Saeed said. “In light of the daily deteriorating situation due to the lack of food and life resources, weak souls will be exploited to steal [artifacts from] important museums and smuggle them out of the country.”
Saeed singled out the Sudan National Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Republican Palace Museum, and the Sudan Natural History Museum, all located in the capital city of Khartoum, which is currently besieged by gunfire between army and rival paramilitary forces.
Reports surfaced at the end of April that the National Museum, a repository of thousands of years of human history, had suffered looting. It houses the world’s most wide-ranging Nubian archaeological collection, with some artifacts dating back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.
Present-day Sudan was a significant crossroads centuries ago for early African kingdoms, and surviving artifacts are invaluable to constructing a comprehensive human history. Khalid Albaih, a Khartoum-based artist and journalist, recently told the Art Newspaper that the museum “has also become a battleground” and that “no one knows how much damage the [National Museum] took.”
The civil war in Sudan has raged since mid-April, when Sudan’s military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the country’s deputy and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, began vying for political power. The two men were allies during the 2019 popular uprising against Sudan’s longtime leader, Omar al-Bashir, and tentatively shared power following his ouster.
However, the alliance collapsed in 2021 when the power-sharing government was dissolved by the army, crushing civilian hopes for a peaceful transition into democracy. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, at least 860,000 people have fled Sudan to neighboring countries. Those that remain face severe food, water, and fuel shortages, as well as limited transportation and communication.
Saeed shared that no one has been able to access the National Museum since the beginning of the war, leaving countless live specimens—endangered Nile crocodiles and monitors, rare birds, and more—to slowly die from thirst and starvation. “The [Museum] is located close to the Sudanese army’s headquarters, which means anyone walking around will be shot immediately as was the case with one of the university students.”
“The war in Sudan must be stopped immediately,” she said.