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The National Museum of Afghanistan

Afghanistan

by Constance Wyndham

A brief history

Although often eclipsed by the modern political situation, Afghanistan has a rich history. The country has repeatedly been a focal point of cultures, ideas and religions due to its position along networks of routes that connected Central Asia with China, Iran, India and the Mediterranean. The region is rich in minerals and precious metals and became a centre for trade and migration, and as a result Afghanistan is particularly culturally diverse. These layers of history are expressed in the world-class collection of over 100,000 objects at the National Museum in Kabul.

The basis for the National Museum’s collection is an assortment of King Habibullah’s (1901-1919) manuscripts, paintings and weapons which grew steadily after 1922 when the Afghan archaeological agency struck a deal with the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in which French archaeologists were given exclusive rights to excavate for thirty years if they divided their finds with the National Museum. After 1952, more international delegations followed to work alongside the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, and the collection grew to span fifty millennia, from the Middle Paleolithic to the twentieth century ethnographic pieces. A particularly important find was discovered by the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi and his Afghan colleagues on the eve of the invasion of Soviet troops in 1979: Tilla Tepe (Golden Hill) was a nomadic burial mound dating to 1st century CE which held graves containing more than 20,000 pieces of gold jewellery and adornment.

The museum during conflict

The arrival of the Soviet troops in 1979 marked the beginning of a turbulent time for the country’s heritage. In 1931 the museum had been moved to its current building in Darulaman, which was in a vulnerable position on the outskirts of the city opposite King Amanullah Khan’s (1919-1929) impressive neoclassical palace. In 1979 this area was designated a militarised zone, and later, during the civil war of the 1990s, was caught between the battles of the various mujahideen factions as they fought for control of the capital. Between 1979 and 2001, archaeological excavations ceased and museum staff, fearful of the consequences of each subsequent regime change for the museum, regularly moved parts of the collection to different safe houses around the city. One crucial move was in 1989 when President Najibullah (1987-1992) ordered curators to pack up objects from the sites of Ai Khanum, Tilla Tepe, Tepe Fullol and Begram to be hidden in the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Culture. The group of curators kept the locations of the artefacts secret and from 1992-1995, while these objects were hidden, civil war raged around the museum resulting in extensive looting and destruction.

In response, a group of enthusiasts and experts founded the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) to raise awareness locally and internationally about the lost objects. The group, together with museum staff, started an inventory of the remaining collection (much of which had been damaged) in the building without electricity or water. In 1994, UN Habitat was able to repair parts of the building and later, with the arrival of the Taliban in 1997, work on the inventory was able to continue and further repairs were made. However, after initially supporting the country’s heritage by helping to establish the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland and issuing two edicts to safeguard cultural property against looting and smuggling, Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued orders to destroy the Bamiyan Buddas in February 2001. Soon followed the smashing of approximately 2000 objects both in the museum and in the storerooms at the Ministry by Taliban officials. Without a full pre-war inventory staff couldn’t accurately assess the damage, but perhaps over half of the collection was either looted or destroyed between 1979 and 2001.

Hidden in the vaults

After international forces occupied Kabul in November 2001, work was able to begin at the destroyed museum. The staff assessed the damage and by 2003 the museum had water and electricity again. In 2004, as the vaults beneath the Presidential Palace were being cleaned, the hidden boxes full of objects were rediscovered and President Karzai, museum staff, ministers and archaeologists gathered for a ceremonial reopening of the trunks. Although rumoured lost, sold or stolen by the Soviets, all the cases and their contents were in fact intact. Although put under pressure at different times, the brave museum staff had kept their secret for fourteen years. There was great relief at the number of important objects saved.

The reopening of the museum

In October 2004 President Hamid Karzai re-opened the museum and an exhibition of over 200 objects that survived in the vaults was organised by the National Museum in conjunction with National Geographic and the Musée Guimet. “Hidden Treasures from the National Museum” revealed the history and traditions beyond Afghanistan’s current conflict and was shown at major museums in the US, Europe and is currently touring Australia.

UNESCO was tasked with co-ordinating donations to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and in 2002, at the “International Seminar on the Rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage” donor countries collectively pledged $7 million for cultural heritage initiatives in Afghanistan. The museum received funding from Italy, Greece, France, the UK and the US for training programmes for staff in inventory and conservation techniques, conservation laboratories and repairs to the building. Since these initial commitments, among others, the Netherlands, Japan and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture have also contributed to the rehabilitation of the museum. In an attempt to stall the illegal trade in Afghan artefacts and alert dealers to stolen objects, in 2007 ICOM distributed a Red List of objects missing from the collection.

Returned objects

Since 2001, through a variety of initiatives, around 9000 objects have been returned to the museum. From 1999-2007 the Afghanistan-Museum-in-Exile in Bubendorf, Switzerland, acted as a temporary depository for archaeological and ethnographic material. Private collectors and tourists that had previously travelled to Afghanistan generously donated their personal collections and this group of 1500 objects was repatriated to the National Museum in 2007. Another catalyst for the restitution of objects is the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition which raises awareness about the plight of the museum as it travels the world. One example is an anonymous British dealer with an interest in Afghanistan that, inspired by the exhibition, in 2011 returned a set of fragile carved ivory furniture overlays from 1st century AD and acquired a sculpture of Buddha from a Japanese collector on behalf of the museum. International border controls are also playing a part in returning objects and since 2001, the UK Border Agency and Scotland Yard have intercepted several shipments of illegally exported artefacts and returned them to Kabul with the help of the British Museum.

Recent developments

In 2007, with funds from Greece, UNESCO oversaw the redevelopment of the museum’s surrounding area into a landscaped garden, which provides outdoor public space (a rarity in Kabul) and will potentially draw more visitors to the museum. Since 2011, three galleries on the top floor of the building, with the assistance of the US and Dutch governments, have been converted into temporary spaces for small-scale exhibitions which attract increasing numbers of visitors. Currently on show are “Mes Aynak: Recent Discoveries Along the Silk Road,” “Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan,” and “Bactria: Land of 1000 Cities”. The management of the museum, it’s staff and collections is also undergoing a transformation, as the traditional means of designating responsibility for cultural property in Afghanistan is being transformed into a curatorial system more compatible with museums internationally. The cleaning and restoration of objects smashed by the Taliban continues and approximately 400 objects have been fully restored by the team of museum conservators to date.

A new building

In 2011, the US government pledged $5 million to support the design and construction of a new National Museum building next to the current museum and an International Architectural Ideas Competition was launched. 72 proposals from 31 countries were evaluated by an international jury, chaired by the Minister of Information and Culture, Dr. Sayed Makhdoom Raheen. The winning practice was AV62 Arquitectos SLP from Spain. As of January 2013, the building of a new entrance and security gate is underway. The Ministry of Information and Culture has committed to contributing $2 million to the new building but more international donors need to step forward and contribute if this project is to be realised.

Issues

As detailed above, since 2001 the museum has attracted donations from a wide range of international sources. With the impending withdrawal of troops in 2014, the questions asked of the wider aid programme in Afghanistan can of course be asked of donors contributions to the National Museum. Has money been well spent, what has it achieved? Is it sustainable? What does the future hold? While these funds have clearly hugely contributed to the current success of the institution, there has been a lack of co-ordination or national strategy for the cultural sector from the Ministry of Information and Culture and UNESCO, and some of these well-intentioned initiatives failed to provide the help they were intended to, or they lack sustainability. One example is that several donors have provided the same equipment and have donated conservation materials from Europe and the US that cannot be replaced locally.

Help comes hand in hand with the desire for visibility from funders. This is particularly true of projects in Afghanistan, a country that is never far from the media gaze. An influx of ready funds can create a culture of dependency, while the need for profile means that donors more willingly contribute to large-scale, visible projects, such as a high profile museum building, while it is harder to find funds to make crucial structural repairs to the building that currently houses the collection. With cultural diplomacy being increasingly understood as powerful adjunct to more traditional politics, and keeping the 2014 deadline in mind, the National Museum must use countries willingness to establish long-term partnerships to its advantage and ensure that the museum benefits for the long-term.

Future

The museum has increasing numbers of visitors, a vibrant range of exhibitions on show and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff. An Afghan government led strategy for the museum’s activities, that includes donor engagement, would enable programmes to be more effective. In the meantime, if donors want involvement, it is up to them to take responsibility to work collaboratively, be realistic about their aims and to work closely with the museum to design sustainable projects.Education is the key factor in the museum’s future. A large number of Afghans have been deprived of an education that includes knowledge of their country’s culture and history. Similarly, the Afghan government itself doesn’t prioritise heritage. This has repercussions, particularly among the current generation of keen, knowledgeable young curators whose expertise and commitment needs to be recognised in order to prevent them from looking for jobs elsewhere.  If the national curriculum and media emphasise the country’s rich history and traditions, future generations will be inspired to value their heritage and contribute to the longevity of this museum and its exceptional collection.

References

Afghanistan cultural profile, ‘The National Museum’ (online), available at: http://afghanistan.test.culturalprofiles.net/?id=33. Accessed 6th February 2013

Brodie, N., Kersel, M. M., Luke, C. and Walker Tubb, K. eds., 2006. Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, University Press of Florida

Dupree, N. 2011. Afghanistan Over a Cup of Tea: 58 chronicles by Nancy Hatch Dupree, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan

Grissmann, C. 2006. ‘The Kabul Museum: Its Turbulent Years’, in J. van Krieken-Pieters, ed., Art and Archaeology of Afghanistan. Its Fall and Survival, Brill

Hiebert, F. and Cambon, P. eds., 2011. Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, British Museum Press

Leslie, J. 2009. ‘Culture and Contest’, in J.A. Their, ed., The Future of Afghanistan, USIP

Manhart, C. ‘UNESCO’s mandate and recent activities for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage,’(online) June 2004, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc_854_manhart.pdf. Accessed 6th February 2013

S.E.E Office for Architecture and Design, ‘Jury Awards,’ (online) September 2012, available at: http://www.see.af/jury_awards.html. Accessed 6th February 2013

UNESCO. ‘Museum in Exile: Swiss Foundation Safeguards over 1,400 Afghan artefacts’ (online) 17.3.2007, available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/movable-heritage-and-museums/museums/museum-projects/museum-in-exile-swiss-foundation-safeguards-over-1400-afghan-artefacts/. Accessed 6th February 2013

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