Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

An exhibition, 'Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul', opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on March 7.  Many thought the treasures of Afghanistan were lost forever. They survived against the odds, thanks to the heroic efforts of a small band of museum staff.
Through decades of horror - the Soviet intervention, civil war, the Taliban regime - Afghanistan's rich cultural and archaeological bounty, dating back millennia, was looted, bombed, shelled, burnt, shattered, blasted and scattered. Photographs show the Kabul museum on the outskirts of the city as a building pock-marked and crumbling. About 70 per cent of its collection was lost to looting. Then, in 2001, infamously, the Taliban dynamited the immense Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved into a cliff 230 kilometres north-west of the capital. The Buddhas could not be saved from the Taliban's quest to eliminate what they decreed was idolatrous imagery but the heroic efforts of museum staff to hide some treasures in the face of great personal risk deserve a Hollywood script. In 1989, as Soviet forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan, a delegation of officials and scholars watched as staff stashed boxes packed with a trove of the museum's treasures in a bank vault within the presidential palace in Kabul. Other artefacts were also cloistered at the Ministry of Information and Culture. A code of silence hovered over the hoard until 2004, two years after Hamid Karzai had been installed as interim president, when the vaults were opened and pieces that most experts had believed were long gone were revealed. They included what National Geographic magazine has described as the "crown jewels of Afghanistan", the legendary Bactrian Gold. 
The scattered collections of the museum then had to be reassembled. In addition to the material that was retrieved "from the vaults, from sifted rubble, from dusty storerooms" there was also stuff which surfaced "from dark corners of the international art market. About 9000 artefacts have been returned to the country.
But it might be premature to celebrate the repatriation of the country's heritage. Despite the intervention of Western countries, including Australia, Afghanistan remains a country in turmoil and Hidden Treasures has been on the road since 2006. "It's just too dangerous to go home is the sad story," says Brand of the exhibition, which has visited institutions including the Musee Guimet in Paris, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, before its AGNSW outing, was shown in Melbourne and Brisbane. "That's why you've got this very unusual situation of highly important objects travelling for so long; normally the tours that go on for the longest are the ones that are least missed and this is the exact opposite." 
Stephanie Wood, 'Out of the rubble' Sydney Morning Herald  February 15, 2014

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