Opinion

For Afghanistan, Museum Loans as Cultural Diplomacy

Crown from Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI (image via theartnewspaper.com)

Though the National Museum of Afghanistan is nowhere near running at full capacity and still hasn’t recovered many of the artifacts lost from its collections in the upheaval of the past decade, a touring exhibition of some of the museum’s signature works is bringing both funding and visibility to a museum and an issue badly in need of both. Currently on display at the British Museum through July 3, the touring artifacts included in the Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World exhibition have brought in over $2.25 million in revenue to the National Museum of Afghanistan.

The case of the National Museum of Afghanistan seems to present another side of the coin to forced repatriation of historical artifacts — by leaving their home country, these ancient works of art are actually spreading the word about the dangers and risks they have faced in their historical home, and raising money for further protection and preservation of artifacts. The artifacts included in Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World have traveled a world tour with stops like the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Bonn Museum in Germany, at every stop educating viewers about Afghanistan’s cultural history.

Recovered artifacts at the National Museum of Afghanistan (image via levantinecenter.org)

In the infamous case of the Elgin Marbles, Greece is aggressively trying to recover its historical artifacts from England in a play for international visibility, using political and cultural pressure. But for Afghanistan, it’s not so much about repatriation as it is about recovery, and not so much about pressure as it is about exchange. International museums are getting to show historically relevant, one-of-a-kind artifacts rarely available for loans, and the Afghanistan National Museum is benefiting from both loan fees and a public platform to speak from.

This is a clear example of cultural diplomacy, the use of art as a PR opportunity for a national identity in an international arena. The more people see the Afghanistan artifacts, the more will be made aware of the country’s history and the contemporary problems facing the museum in the background of violent political change. National treasures like a gold crown and an inlaid pendant from the Tillya Tepe hoard only recently recovered after Taliban rule are becoming object lessons of what happens when a country’s artistic legacy is neglected or willfully destroyed. The presence of the Tillya Teppe artifacts in these international museums speaks eloquently to the absence of the rest of the museum’s collection, much of which is still missing.

Afghanistan artifacts on view at the British Museum (image via britishmuseum.org)

But what’s also interesting is that the artifact world tour is working on multiple levels. Aside from being good for public image, it’s also good in a strictly profit and cost-minded sense. Museum loans come with a basket of other expenses, from the shipping itself to paying for couriers to travel with the works and funding for research and catalog writing. By participating in these exhibitions through loans, the Afghanistan National Museum is both gaining monetarily and gaining valuable research and documentation that it may not be able to pay for otherwise. This is collaboration at the highest level of international art museum community, and it speaks well for the future that the museum has both the opportunity and the flexibility to be involved.

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