Cultural Property Internationalism: A Raw Deal for Afghanistan? (UPDATE)

Cultural property internationalism is the idea that cultural objects have a value for all mankind. Unfortunately, sometimes taking that position can produce unsatisfactory results for source nations.

Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on the traveling exhibition of Afghanistan’s Bactrian Gold. The National Geographic Society has reached a deal which pays $1million to Afghanistan for display of the hoard, plus 40% of all profits. Sounds like a great deal for Afghanistan to generate revenue and engender some international appreciation for its heritage.

That’s not the case apparently:

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.

A similar exhibition by the Egyptians in 1994 earned that country over $10 million in every city visited. Some of the pieces were displayed in Paris and Turin, but the details of that exhibition were not made known.

I don’t know very much about how much a source nation like Afghanistan should expect to clear in an exhibition like this. Thomas Hoving and Lynne Munson certainly feel Afghanistan got slighted.

Though the Egyptian exhibitions seem to indicate that Afghanistan should have held out for more money, this may also serve a very important cultural mission for Afghans. Many foreigners view that nation as a hostile place with mountains and terrorists, or the source for much of the heroin trade. In reality it was once a very important stop on the silk road and the home to some very advanced ancient civilizations. Everyone knows that Egypt has a great archaeological heritage, perhaps this exhibitions will change the perception of Afghanistan and allow other exhibitions in the future to garner more funds for Afghanistan in the future.


I missed Lee Rosenbaum’s excellent criticism of the Pogrebin article. I’ve come to increasingly rely on RSS feeds, and that site doesn’t have one. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many problematic aspects surrounding Robin Pogrebin‘s story in yesterday’s NY Times about the allegedly “unconscionable” financial arrangements between the National Geographic Society and the government of Afghanistan, for a proposed tour of that country’s Bactrian hoard, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics cited in the article charge that Afghanistan is being shortchanged in the deal although, from the Times account, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the financial parameters of the arrangement are.

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3 thoughts on “Cultural Property Internationalism: A Raw Deal for Afghanistan? (UPDATE)”

  1. Interesting ‘how much a country could expect’ for antiquities loans. This kind of deal is really quite a taboo subject, and I’d like to read more about bilateral deals between governments on antiquities loans – can you suggest any references?

    The real value of such deals is not necessarily the actual price tag (this kind of arrangement is really just in the case of the ‘blockbusters’). It is of the political capital and prestige. When I helped with organising exhibition loans there wasn’t an actual sum of money given to the and lender from the exhibiting institution, but rather a series of obvious and imperceptible favours. Of course insurance is most important, but for, say, a private lender, putting a piece on show could mean a tax break. It could also enhance the value of the piece, and be used in the run-up to a potential sale. Or it could simply form an obligation from one institutional lender to another.

    I don’t know if the Afghan government has done badly at all. I commented here on the Bactrian treasure when it first went on loan to France. Seems to me that this very important group of objects is being promoted, though its international tour, into a national(ist) archaeological icon, akin to Tutankhamun and the Emperor’s Warriors.

    Needless to say, there are plenty of reasons why Afghanistan’s international image could do with improving, but is it really the country’s population, or its current rulers, or its NATO overlords, who are benefiting?

    Will Anderson

  2. Loan agreements are an interesting subject, and it appears to be a very underdeveloped area in terms of the scholarship. Perhaps that is because it takes a certain degree of inside knowledge to know what a good deal is for a nation wishing to display its antiquities abroad.

    Also, as you say, the real value may come in other areas of foreign relations which are not readily apparent. I think this may come into play with bilateral agreements a great deal, especially in the way the US has chosen to implement the UNESCO Convention.

  3. The fact of the matter is that National Geographic (which not a government institution) is hoping to make tons of money off the Afghans. Ms. Rosenbaum’s ad homimin attack on Ms. Munson relies on unfounded anonymous “insiders” who no doubt have a axe to grind. She doesn’t even mention Tom Hoving (who was behind the original Tut show). Instead she quotes the Met who are known to trade in the black market.
    The idea that the Afghans should lend their most prized objects for nothing is ridiculous ivory tower liberalism. The Afghans can’t even view the objects in their home country because they do not have the funds to properly protect and display them. Take Tom Hoving’s word, National Geographic is robbing the Afghans and our government especially the NEH is letting them.

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