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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Display of Afghan Antiquities in Paris

Today’s New York Times has a nice piece on the display of Afghan treasures at the Musee Guimet in Paris. A press release about the exhibition is available here. The last three decades have seen a great deal of conflict and destruction in Afghanistan, and the most remarkable thing about many of these objects is that they have survived at all. Unfortunately, these beautiful objects can not yet be safely displayed in Afghanistan. Some of these treasures, in a collection known as the Bactrian gold, were kept hidden in a bank vault under the royal palace just outside Kabul. The nation sits as a crossroads between many of the world’s great ancient cultures, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians, and these objects display these influences.

French archaeologists have long-standing ties with Afghanistan. In the 1920’s, the French were granted an archaeological monopoly, to counteract growing British influence there. At the time, it was commonplace for middle-eastern nations to allow foreign archaeologists to keep half of the objects they discovered. The French were later booted from the country after the communist takeover in 1982, however they returned in 2003 after the Taliban was removed from power. These ties are probably what helped secure the exhibition in Paris.

On one level, these continuing colonial ties make me a bit uncomfortable, as it is regrettable that other nations have to save these objects from theft, destruction, or sale, when Afghanistan cannot. It is indeed unfortunate that these objects cannot be enjoyed by Afghans in their own nation. However, it is certainly a great opportunity for visitors to Paris to see them, and at the end of the day, these objects are very valuable and rare, and their display should be encouraged, even if it is not possible in their nation of origin. A major, perhaps inevitable, flaw of allowing a source nation to decide the fate of the cultural objects and sites within thair borders is the possibility that the ruling power may not want the preservation of a certain cultural history. Nation’s use cultural history as a political tool, and Afghanistan is a potent example of this. The Buddha’s at Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban because the image of Buddha is un-islamic. One Islamic school of thought believes the destruction justified, as individual’s were practicing Buddhism, which was certainly frowned upon by the Taliban.

In the absence of a peaceful Afghanistan, visitors can enjoy and appreciate these objects in Paris, and appreciate the thriving society that existed in Afghanistan, perhaps with an eye towards bringing about positive change there now.

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