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Afghanistan Exhibition Provokes Questions

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The New York Times
June 6, 2007

The National Geographic Society has struck a $1 million deal with the Afghan government to bring a rare cache of gold artifacts to the United States in a traveling exhibition. But some cultural experts who have followed the negotiations are questioning whether Afghanistan is being properly compensated.

Plans call for the ancient Afghan pieces — part of the storied 2,000-year-old Bactrian hoard — to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, although contracts have not yet been signed by those institutions.

The National Geographic Society and the Afghan government signed a protocol accord over the weekend in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, outlining an exhibition schedule that would begin in May 2008 at the National Gallery. The document calls for Afghanistan to receive $1 million as well as 40 percent of “total revenue,” which is defined as exhibition revenue, minus expenses.

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”

She said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the show.

The protocol accord signed over the weekend says that the exhibition revenue going to the Afghans will be derived from the fees paid by the museums as hosts of the show and from corporate sponsorships. It does not guarantee them proceeds from ticket, catalog or merchandise sales.

Reached by telephone in Washington, Terry D. Garcia, the executive vice president of the National Geographic Society’s mission programs, said that the financial terms “were dictated by the Afghans.”

He said that no decision had been made on proceeds from the merchandising or the catalog sales. He added, “Those categories of revenue are in fact included in what the Afghans would receive.”

Ana Rosa Rodriguez, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, said in a telephone interview from Kabul that she felt the society had taken advantage of a country that has endured nearly three decades of violent upheaval.

“I think it is my duty to express my concerns about this deal,” Ms. Rodrguez said, complaining of “the unacceptable manner” in which “a prestigious American society has dealt with a postconflict country with a devastated cultural heritage.”

The collection includes more than 20,000 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and personal items from the Silk Road culture of Bactria, an ancient nation that covered parts of what is now Afghanistan. The hoard was discovered in 1978 by a Russian-Greek archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, at a grave site in Tillia-Tepe, in northern Afghanistan. The works blend Greek, Bactrian and nomadic traditions, reflecting Afghanistan’s historical position at the crossroads of ancient civilizations.

The treasures were only sporadically displayed over the next decade and then packed away. Then, in 1989, when Afghanistan’s last Communist president was facing a growing insurgency by the Islamic rebels known as the mujahedeen and the imminent withdrawal of Soviet troop support, he ordered that the treasures be hidden. He was ousted in 1992, and for years it was widely assumed that the gold had been looted or destroyed and would never resurface.

The treasures were unearthed from a bank vault beneath a former royal palace in Kabul in 2004. They were among the few examples of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage to survive decades of war. The collection had been kept hidden by curators and employees of the Kabul Museum at tremendous personal risk under the fractious mujahedeen and then the Taliban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001.

“It’s a compelling story, not just of the Silk Road but also the work of these modern-day heroes,” Mr. Garcia said. “We think people are going to love it.”

But Ms. Munson said that if the show proved to be a blockbuster, an impoverished Afghanistan should reap more of the benefit.

When an exhibition of 130 objects from Tutankhamen’s tomb began touring in 2004, the Egyptian government set out to clear $10 million in every city visited and to take more than 50 percent of the gross revenue.

Thomas Hoving, who pioneered the museum blockbuster concept as director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 to 1977, said Afghanistan should have held out for more. “They don’t get enough money,” he said.

“The Egyptians are getting all admissions, 80 percent of the sales in the shop, and they should have patterned it after that,” Mr. Hoving said. “Or a flat fee of a million a venue. The entity that ought to get most of the bucks should be Afghanistan.”

Mr. Garcia declined to discuss how the traveling objects would be insured.

He said the museums had each signed a letter of commitment regarding the artifacts, though only the National Gallery would confirm this. “They’ve all expressed their keen interest and hope to be a venue,” Mr. Garcia said, adding, “We’re working on contract negotiations.”

The protocol signed by the society and the Afghan government stipulates that a new museum would be selected should any of the four museums not be able to play host to the exhibition. Ms. Munson said she was concerned that this could lead to the objects’ being displayed at an insufficiently secure location.

Mr. Garcia said the National Gallery was expected to be the lead museum, subject to completion of the agreement.

Asked about its plans, the National Gallery said through a spokeswoman, “The National Gallery of Art is interested but has nothing to confirm at this time.” The Asian Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts both referred calls to the National Geographic Society. Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum, would not comment on any agreement but added, “This would make a valuable contribution to the exhibition schedule.”

The accord signed last weekend calls for the exhibition to run at the National Gallery from May 25 to Sept. 7, 2008; at the Asian Art Museum from Oct. 17, 2008, to Jan. 25, 2009; at the Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 22 to May 17, 2009; and at the Met from June 14 to Sept 17, 2009.

“The timing sequence is subject to change till we become able to work through scheduling,” Mr. Garcia said. The agreement with the society was signed by Afghanistan’s information and culture minister, Abdul Karim Khoram, Mr. Garcia said.

About 100 of the Bactrian gold objects were recently on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris, along with 131 objects from three other Afghan archaeological collections, and are now in Turin. The terms of that exhibition were unclear.

The new show is to be overseen by Frederik Hiebert, an archaeologist formerly affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Silk Road artifacts and is a fellow at the National Geographic Society. Mr. Hiebert led the effort to compile an inventory of the collection in 2004. The National Endowment for the Humanities helped underwrite the project with two $30,000 grants.

The society also paid for Omar Sul tan, an Afghan exile and archaeologist, to assist Mr. Hiebert in his dealings with the Afghans. Mr. Sultan became Afghanistan’s deputy culture minister in January 2005, while still a consultant to the National Geographic Society. He also led a committee responsible for selecting the institutions that would display the objects.

“Did this create a conflict of interest?” Ms. Munson asked. “We’ll never know.”

But Mr. Garcia said in response: “Our selection as organizer of the exhibition was made by the full Afghan exhibition committee, and approved by the minister of information and culture, Minister Khoram. The process had the full support of the entire committee as well as the ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad.” He said that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, “was aware and fully supportive of the process.”

Ms. Munson said that during a 2005 trip she made to Kabul, Omara Khan Massoudi, who leads Afghanistan’s Museums Ministry and is now the director of the Kabul Museum, expressed concern about how the National Geographic Society had handled the inventory of the hoard.

“Mr. Omara Khan Massoudi told me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that he thought National Geographic had disrespected the Afghans and their objects during the inventory,” she said. “Massoudi said the Afghans had no more need for National Geographic. So that they’re being awarded the exhibition means something has gone awry.”

Asked about his position by telephone, Mr. Massoudi said, “It’s out of my hands,” but declined to elaborate.

Ms. Munson suggested that there should have been an open competition among museums for the show to assure maximal revenue to aid in Afghanistan’s cultural reconstruction, and that the National Endowment for the Humanities should have exerted greater oversight.

“Instead it seems we’ve ended up with a National Geographic monopoly and a very poor deal for the Afghans,” she said.

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Written by afghandevnews

June 7, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

3 Responses

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  1. Events regarding the Afghan treasure rediscovery are in the book:
    title: Afghanistan cultural heritage (Il patrimonio culturale afgano)
    author: Giorgio V. Brandolini
    publisher: Orizzonte terra
    year: 2007
    pages: 72 + 4 color (cm 20.5×14.5)
    language: English (also available in Italian)

    East and West meet in Afghanistan – where poetry and art have produced masterpieces, celebrating nature, beauty and human growth and evolution.
    The National Museum of Afghanistan, in the south of Kabul, which harbored treasures of this country’s magnificent past, was bombed and seriously damaged in May 1993 during the civil war. Destruction and looting followed for years, with heart-breaking losses for present and future generations.
    The most precious treasures of Kabul Museum, its archaeological collections, however escaped to some extent, as the Museum staff managed to hide some parts of its collections for many troubled years.
    Conserving traditions is a deliberate choice by Afghanistan’s rural population, as well as maintaining the genetic heritage of crops species. At the same time traditional agriculture has been providing the country’s food for the population and its animals throughout decades of war.
    The synthesis between Afghanistan’s agricultural and artistic traditions lives on in its magnificent gardens, going back to Moghul days (15th century). These ancient and delicate gardens can still today be enjoyed in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

    Table of contents



    A painful rediscovery

    Part I. Afghanistan cultural heritage
    Epochs of Afghan history
    Cultural heritage and civil war
    The adventures of the Kabul Museum treasure during the civil war

    Kabul Museum tresure collections
    Cultural heritage reborn
    The Society for the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage
    Sketch of the history of Afghanistan art

    Part II. Cultural traditions of the agricultural and pastoral society
    Rural society and agricultural genetic heritage
    Poppy and agriculture



    Giorgio V. Brandolini

    Giorgio V. Brandolini

    June 15, 2007 at 2:40 pm

  2. Dear Madams and Sirs,

    if you are interested in cultural heritage, in particular for Afghanistan there is an growing community towards this topics, in joint conjunction of two institutes of rwth aachen. Feel free to visit us.

    best regards,


    July 12, 2007 at 9:21 am

  3. Conference on Afghanistan – Cultural Heritage held on October 10th
    On October 10, 2007, at Bergamo public library a Conference on Afghanistan cultural heritage was held,
    sponsored by Orizzonte Terra association, the first such event in Italy and many influential people representing
    their organizations including local authorities, representatives of cultural institutions and private associations
    with field experience in Afghanistan, and the general public.
    At 16 00 hours, Mr G. Misosi, director of the library, opened the meeting, with an appreciation of those who
    contributed to the survival and rebirth of culture among the hardship of post-conflict reconstruction and
    A key speech on Afghanistan cultural heritage was held by Mr G. V. Brandolini, who stressed the pivotal role
    played by SPACH (established in Peshawar in 1994) and especially by Ms N. H. Dupree and Ms B. Neubacher,
    in gathering and pipelining foreign aid, by establishing respectful relations with whatever people were in charge
    in Kabul during the war, Talebans included. Mr R. Kluijver moved SPACH’s see to Kabul Chicken street as early
    as March 2001 (now Taimani first street, Sarak awal). This young Dutch cultural heritage expert, as early
    as July 2000 had traveled to Surch Kotal to retrieve the Rabatak stone inscription (over kg 500), in Greek script
    and Bactrian language, relating about the Kushan emperor Kanishka’s deeds and genealogy. As SPACH
    coordinator he persuaded for over one year Talebans to respect the Bamyan giant statues of Buddhas. Ms. A.
    Rodríguez, in Kabul since March 2002 and now coordinator of SPACH, established excellent relations with
    other cultural institutions, such as the Kabul museum, ICOM, foreign universities, and advocated colleagues to
    join energies in the cultural field. She now plays a major role as adviser of the Minister of culture. The new
    frontier is the raising of the population awareness on cultural heritage preservation, in view of the meaning of
    the common past and opportunities for the tourist industry and social welfare. The development of fresh local
    human resources is the starting point for every initiative.
    Prof. G. Magi illustrated the Norvegian writer Ǻsne Seierstad’s literary masterpiece: The bookseller of Kabul, a
    faithful portrait of life and culture in the war years. He stressed the conciseness and exactness of this book, a
    chronicle of business and family life in the Talebans epoch, in a book-shop, Charing cross style, established at
    Charahi sedarat, Kabul. He also remarked the complex and contradictory environment in which Afghan scholars
    live, filtering foreign cultural debate pouring into a traditional society from everywhere. The fuzzy and uncritical
    handling of foreign messages in the 1970’s ignited the massive disorganization of Afghan society, opening the
    gates to instability and overwhelming destructive forces.
    It followed the presentation of the Italian translation (Fiore venato di fumo) of the Gul-e dudi (Smoke-veined
    flower) lyrical anthology of the Herat Dari poet Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005). As a girl and young woman, she
    experiences the contradictory world of a town at war against itself, where future was a pale moon and present a
    long nightmare. She found her way to make known her unexpressed wishes through winged verses, whose
    universal meaning appeals to readers everywhere in the world. As for Mr S. M. Rais, the weight of hinging
    between two worlds was unsustainable. Bright reflections of her earthly experience are such mighty lines as:
    Once again I am alone with the beautiful appearance of the night
    Once again I fell in love; in love with night’s solitude
    Once again – wake up people! – Everyone is asleep and I am drunk with visions
    I have taken the cups from the cup-bearer of the dreamlike night
    If we can’t go by foot, we should jump into the river
    We should throw ourselves into the water
    We should go there with the wind
    By any possible way away from this prison
    And before you could reach your love
    A cruel storm and misfortune
    Nipped the bud of your hope
    Don’t ask about the love that was the poem’s inspiration
    My loving words recall a death
    I will become a rose of hope, a river
    As drops of tears cannot solve my problems
    My cries spark up tiny stars
    My prayer makes its nest in the universe
    My tears mark every line of its book
    Don’t Change my emotions to sorrow, I am happy with disorder
    Her commitment to the exploration of human soul is her legacy to the new Afghan generations, looking for
    inspiration in the shaping of their lives among hardships and contrasting influences.
    The following debate was sparked by Ms D. Docchio, expressing their concerns for the future of Afghan cultural
    heritage, whose priorities are subordinated to more urgent needs. Ms B. Comuzio suggested that the discussion
    about the future of Bamyan statues of Buddhas (i.e., their envisaged reconstruction or original-size presentation
    through laser-lights projection), should see the active participation of the Afghans themselves, whose wishes or
    preferences are not read in the international press. Anyway, she forecasts, Bamyan dwellers would rather a
    solution attracting tourists, such as a full-scale reproduction. Another outstanding issue is who and how will run
    such historical site. Economical resources and managerial skills are still non-existent in the country, and they
    are badly needed, if the foreign tourism market is a target.
    According to Ms G. Candela, Afghan handcrafts tradition, as expressed by the Nuristani carved woodworks,
    should be better studied – a part pioneer work bu prof. Max Klimburg, little is know on their intrinsic value and
    relations with local culture -. Also Kouchi cultural life, studied in the 1960’s by prof. Yutaka Tani and more
    recently by several AREU experts, is a greatly unexplored land.
    Ms Anna Maria Moserfe concluded that some organizations as SPACH (see the Tashqurgan bazaar exhibition),
    Aschiana (fine arts teaching) and the Foundation for culture and civil society are actives in the cultural field and
    a greater consciousness of donors and foreign cultural institutions, as shown by Orizzonte Terra, will contribute
    to improve the role of culture in rebuilding the Afghan society and economy.
    In his final remarks, the moderator announced that in December 2007, Rome will host a Conference on
    Afghanistan cultural heritage, with the participation of ICOMOS, ICCROM and the Ministry for the cultural

    Giorgio V. Brandolini

    October 14, 2007 at 11:07 am

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