By Susie Allen and William Harms
Photo by Jolyon Leslie

People literally risked their lives to preserve this heritage. It is extremely important that we help them organize this collection and preserve it because it is unique and irreplaceable.”
—Gil Stein
Director, Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is home to some of the earliest known statues of Buddha, remnants of the easternmost Greek colony of Alexander the Great and his successors, and stone tools dating back some 30,000 years.

Its collection tells a powerful story about Afghanistan’s culture and history.

But years of military conflict in Afghanistan ravaged the museum. The State Department estimates that nearly 70 percent of the museum’s collection was looted or destroyed during the country’s civil war and subsequent Taliban rule.

Today, a partnership between the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the National Museum of Afghanistan is helping to restore the museum. With support from the U.S. State Department, Oriental Institute experts are helping museum staff inventory and care for the priceless artifacts that remain in their care.

The museum’s remaining collection “preserves the record of the different cultures and religions that were part of the fabric of the area that is now Afghanistan over the millennia,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute.

“People literally risked their lives to preserve this heritage,” Stein adds. “It is extremely important that we help them organize this collection and preserve it because it is unique and irreplaceable.”

Artifacts from many cultures recovered in Afghanistan

The surviving artifacts shed light on a region that was at the crossroads of the ancient Near East and the cultures of India and China.

The collection includes spectacular objects that were traded along the Silk Road. Because travel was so costly along the route, only items of exceptional value made the journey—carved ivory furniture inlays India, lacquer bowls from China, painted glass from Rom,e and a crystal vase with the largest-known image of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria.

But in order to properly care for the priceless artifacts, the museum needed to take stock of the objects in their care.

Developing a new digital inventory system was a complex process requiring the close cooperation of Afghan and American archaeologists, museum curators, conservators, and information technology specialists. The effort is supported by a three-year, $2.8 million State Department grant—the largest single grant in the Oriental Institute’s history.

Since September 2012, inventorying teams have been recording information about the objects in a database in both Dari (one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) and English. The staff photographs the objects and records information about their condition, noting any damage or decay.

The database now allows museum curators and other experts to locate objects quickly, identify the artifacts most in need of conservation instantly, and produce meaningful connections between artifacts of various periods and places within Afghanistan. The database work also will help establish an accurate count of the artifacts, which remains uncertain.

On a recent trip to Kabul, experts from the Oriental Institute provided additional suggestions and provided acid-free containers to help create microclimates better suited for preserving the fragile objects in the museum’s collections. Additionally, they discussed which storage areas may be better equipped for housing artifacts with specific temperature and humidity needs.

“This help from the Oriental Institute has assisted us in doing our work in a more scientific way. It is particularly important that they are training all of our staff so they can learn to use the database and how to conserve our artifacts,” says Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum.

“Before we did not know in which case a particular artifact was stored. Now we will be able to find it immediately,” he continues. 

Massoudi says information from the database will be available at the museum’s website and provide information for museum visitors, which included 25,000 people last year.

“We have a very rich culture and collecting information on the artifacts will help introduce that culture to our school children and explain our objects better to our visitors,” Massoudi adds.

The partnership has inventoried “objects from everyday life that help us see connections across time and space,” says Mike Fisher, who led the work at the museum for the Oriental Institute. “The collection shows the endurance of an archaeological record that evidences incredible achievements of people living in Afghanistan from the Paleolithic period until now.”

United States-Afghan collaboration

The effort requires careful logistical coordination, according to Steve Camp, executive director of the Oriental Institute and the project’s main administrative coordinator.

The project provides for permanent staff living in Kabul, consultants arriving for shorter periods of time to work on specific collections, and Afghan-based partners who offer the day-to-day housing, transportation, and logistical support required to work in Kabul over a three-year period.

“This is truly an international collaboration, and we all feel privileged to be a part of it,” Camp says.

Laura Tedesco, a cultural representative with the State Department, says that preservation of cultural heritage is an important part of U.S. efforts to support Afghanistan’s development of a cohesive national identity and is key to the establishment of a more secure, prosperous and resilient state.

“Protecting Afghanistan’s national cultural heritage, including key historic monuments, archaeological sites, folk arts and traditions, and museums—namely the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul—will help ensure long-term stability,” adds Tedesco, who is cultural heritage program manager in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department.

Despite their troubled recent history, Afghans value their heritage and are regular visitors to the National Museum, said Tedesco, who frequently visits Afghanistan.

“Afghan people are intensely proud of their history and heritage,” she says. “It is a common topic for discussion, and when I have visited the National Museum with Afghans who may have not had the opportunity to previously visit their National Museum, they are amazed at the wealth and beauty of their heritage on display.”

Originally published on March 10, 2014.