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.