Hidden Treasures from Afghanistan

Lecture transcript

Dr J. Patrick Greene, 26 March 2013

Adrian Collette:  Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to extend a very warm welcome and begin by acknowledging the traditional owners on the land on which we come together this evening. The people of the Kulin Nation and pay tribute to their elders past and present.

My name is Adrian Collette. I'm the Executive Director of Engagement and Partnerships at the University of Melbourne.

I'm delighted to welcome you here tonight to the first of a series of five lectures for that take you behind the scenes of this extraordinary exhibition at this extraordinary museum. The University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria have, of course, a very long and proud history of partnership which is very much based on research and investing in scholarship between our organisations.

It is part of this partnership, really, that we get together to bring this series of insights to you and for me. You can agree there is no greater joy than to be able to gain insights behind the things that you see and experience in an organization like this and institution like this.

Please join me in welcoming the CEO of Museums Victoria, Patrick Greene.

Patrick Greene:  Well thank you, Adrian. This is, as you say, a very happy relationship between the two organisations which started with the Pompeii exhibition and continues year‑by‑year gaining ever greater momentum.

I would also like to welcome everybody to the museum on behalf of Museum Victoria. I also would like to pay tribute and pay acknowledgment to the people of the Kulin Nation.

In beginning this evening, for those of you who've seen the exhibition, tonight's talk is going to add another layer of depth to what we think, is a very exciting exhibition. For those of you who haven't seen the exhibition, it is a pleasure yet in store.

We are very proud of the way in which our colleagues from Afghanistan have looked after this marvellous material that we have on display. The privilege we have to open this tour, which will then go to Queensland, to New South Wales, and to Western Australia. What I'll do is I'll tell you something about the background of the exhibition and what it's been like to stage it.

First of all, how did we come across this exhibition? Well, at the opening of the 2010 Tutankhamun exhibition, two of our colleagues from the National Geographic were present. Of course, we were surrounded by all our wonderful material from the tomb.

They said to me, "Do you know there is an exhibition which we have in the United States, at the moment, which has a collection every bit as stunning as that of Tutankhamun, and it's from Afghanistan."

Well, like most people, my image of Afghanistan was of a place beset by war. In fact, I've just written a piece for "The Melbourne Review," this afternoon, which I said that they colour that we have of Afghanistan is one of brown dust, destruction, and devastation.

They said, "There's another story in Afghanistan." In fact, Terry Garcia had been invited by Fred Hiebert to go down and be there when these cabinets were open. Fred had met the director of museum, who with his colleagues, had kept these precious objects hidden for over 20 years, during which time, warring bands crisscrossed the country.

First of all, of course, the Russian invasion, then the civil wars that broke out, then the Taliban, of course. During the Taliban period, as you know, the Pillars at Bamiyan were destroyed. Also, they went into the National Museum, which by that stage was roofless and smashed everything with a human imagine.

The director of the museum, who flew out this morning, was telling me that 70 percent of their collection was destroyed, either destroyed or looted. What about this treasure?

Well, the very brave people in the museum, very, very quickly, as the Russians were moving into Afghanistan, had wrapped up 20,000 objects and put them into metal cabinets, wrapped up with paper, including pink toilet paper. I was told was very effective. There they were in the basement in what had been the Central Bank area.

The opening took place after Fred had met with the director of the museum, who gained his confidence. The director said, "Look, we will open up these cabinets, if you will help to catalog all this material because in the destruction of the museum, we have lost all our records." It was a case of starting again.

That agreement was made. The cataloging took place over months and months, by Fred and by the devoted staff at the museum. A selection of the objects were then brought out of Afghanistan as, what has been described to me by one of the Ministers who have been with us, as cultural ambassadors, for Afghanistan. In other words, to take to the world, a view of Afghanistan quite different to the one we see every night on the news.

The tour started in the United States under the auspices of the National Geographic Society. It was at that stage that our Tutankhamun exhibition was opened and I got to hear about it. Other colleagues of mine got to hear about it, too.

My road to Damascus moment occurred when I went to the British Museum, which was hosting the exhibition and saw the objects for myself. I just could not believe the quality and the beauty of this collection.

It's a collection from four archaeological sites. The one we've just been looking at, which was excavated by the French in the 1930. Begram is the site created by one of Alexander the Great's generals which was a Greek city, which was recognized by then, King of Afghanistan who was out hunting, and saw some pieces of stone which were recognized as “ah, there must be something very different here”.

It led to excavations. Those excavations uncovered the plan of a Greek city. With all those sort of things, you would expect from a Greek city, a planned road system, a grid system, a stadium, a gymnasium, statues of philosophers, buildings with terra cotta on the roof of the sort you would be quite familiar if it were in any other part of the Hellenic world. What an extraordinary thing to find.

Alexander the Great, one of the things he did was encourage his generals to set up cities across the empire, which of course stretched all the way from Afghanistan to northern Egypt, well the whole of Egypt, in fact. Giving rise to the Ptolemaic dynasty. Then up as far, of course, Macedonia.

There was this Greek city, now for me visiting that exhibition, yes, I'm an archaeologist, but I have absolutely no idea that such an extraordinary site could be found in Afghanistan.

Then, as I went round the exhibition, I came to the Tillya Tepe, that means, "Hill of Gold," in the local language. It was called, "Hill of Gold," by the local people because every now and again, a piece of gold would appear on this site.

Fred's colleague and mentor, Mr. Sarianidi, was excavating this site of a temple and found tucked into it and hidden these amazing graves of nomads. These nomads, like nomads across the world don't have, I have heard Fred describe this, you don't have a bank when you're a bank. You carry your wealth with you.

What you see in the exhibition here is what emerged from some of those tombs. The extraordinary decorative adornments. Everything from anklets, very heavy gold anklets all the way up through the body to the very, very beautiful head dress, crown of a nomadic princess or certainly a high born elite person of that nomadic peoples.

When you look at that particular piece, it actually, it folds up. There are five palmettes of the top which come out of the circular frame. Can be packed up together, the circular frame can be folded. Off you go as a nomadic princess to the next place and next time you have an opportunity to wear it.

To see that and to see the delicacy. To see the way in which it's designed in such a way that there are all these little suspended pieces of gold, which would make a sort of quiet jingle as the person moved, is really amazing. Again, I have absolutely no idea that that sort of material was there.

Why hadn't I heard of it? Well, I heard vaguely of Bactria. I heard vague of finds being made there. That was it. That is part of the story because Mr. Sarianidi, in excavating the site, excavated it very quickly with the threat of the Russian Invasion in the air.

Having found the graves, they were quickly packed up and taken to the National Museum in Kabul. From there, as we now know, they were put into these cabinets, but he didn't know that, because everything happened so quickly.

An article appeared in "The National Geographic" magazine that he authored that had some photographs taken of these wonderful objects. At the end of it, he wrote and I paraphrase. Take a good look at because these are the wonderful objects that will probably never be seen again.

He certainly believed and the archaeological community as a whole believed that unfortunately these were lost forever until, as we now know, the cabinets were opened and there they were.

He was there for that opening. The moment of truth was when he was handed one of the pieces and was asked, "Is this one of the pieces that you excavated?" He looked at it and he said, "Yes."

Not only had they survived but Fred, Mr. Sarianidi, and the director of the museum, counted every single piece. Every single piece was there. We have to remember this is a time when many people are fleeing Afghanistan.

Indeed, we have in Melbourne, many people who came as refugees from Afghanistan. People that we've involved with this exhibition. We have a special community opening the other night. There's an enormous enthusiasm in that community to see their country's heritage.

Also, as Margaret was saying to me, a little earlier this evening, a lot of the reaction is so pleased that another side of Afghanistan is being shown this rich cultural heritage.

At that time, any one of those pieces of gold might have been a means to escaping the country, but not one piece was taken.

We are very, very fortunate. Less fortunate other archaeological sites in Afghanistan, which in the civil disorder that has taken place have essentially be looted and destroyed. Begram is one of these that's been very, very badly damaged.

Why does this happen? Well, poor people desperate will see the archaeological site as a resource, as something to be quarried, to be exploited. They are the first rung on a ladder which stretches all the way around the world. Reaches sales rooms of the west.

In Afghanistan, in Iraq, as we know the looting that took place in the National Museum there. Now, in Syria, the archaeological heritage of these nations conflict is being destroyed.

How does it operate? Well, truck loads of material leave the country. It did in Cambodia, as well, is another that suffered badly. Then, it follows a route which is associated with other unsavoury international trade such as trade in humans, trade in drugs, trade in armaments. Illicit trade, in all of those, until eventually it reaches sale rooms around the world.

Some of those are here in Melbourne. I chair a committee which advises the Minister of the Arts, here in Australia on Australian protected objects, also on illicit trade.

One of the pieces of legislation that committee is responsible for giving advice on is the UNESCO Convention on the trade on antiquities. That was a convention signed in the 1970s. Australia is a signatory, but it doesn't unfortunately stop the trade. It does give the opportunity for Customs and the Federal Police to raid places that are identified as selling illicit antiquities and try and put a stop to it.

I've been part of an event to return material to Cambodia, in the Cambodian Embassy in Canberra, where, for example, bracelets from a grave, which had been sawed off with the bone still inside, were on sale in Armadale.

This is an international problem. It is a problem which exists because people will buy, unfortunately. One of the messages, I would like to leave you with, not leave you quite yet, is please don't purchase anything that does not have a good provenance with it. Otherwise, you are aiding and abetting that trade which goes back to these poor people in Afghanistan trying to scratch a living, trying to take their families overseas, or whatever.

The destruction of the sites have been terrible. What we have left as a result of the collection of the National Museum is absolutely priceless. The final area with materials I recognized, because it coincided with some of the sites that I have excavated, from the Roman era, is very special because it, for some reason, those traders abandoned their store house. They blocked up the door and they never went back to it.

Now, archaeological finds are usually found in pieces. We throw away things that are broken. We keep things that are whole. In that case, the objects were complete. They may have been broken as a result of being in the ground. A part from that, they were complete and could be restored.

That's why you see in that final room, those amazing ivories. The amazing glass with tremendous delicacy in its manufacture. Some of it made locally. Fred was telling me that there's evidence that the sand was used as ballast from Egypt and used to make glass in the Middle East were using the river roots to bring it up.

There's also glass from Egypt with these amazing Roman paintings on the side. There's Indian material, there's material from Greek, from Persia. There's the world trade is represented in that room. It's worth looking at every single object.

There are stone objects made of porphyry. Porphyry was a stone which in the Roman Empire was reserved for the emperor or for very, very prestigious shrines. If you go to Rome, you'll see some of the sarcophagus made out of porphyry for emperors. Here we have porphyry - very, very elite material being traded along Silk Road.

That is the exhibition we brought here. Having been to the British Museum and see that, I talked to my colleagues here and said, "Look, this is an exhibition that we really must bring to Australia." Well, that's a challenge in its own right. We worked with our colleagues in the Art Gallery of New South Wales that had already had expressed an interest in this exhibition.

We talked to our own colleagues in Queensland. We talked to the Queensland Museum. We talked to our colleagues at the Western Australian Museum in Perth. All of them came on board to say, "Yes, we would like to bring this exhibition here."

Well, that required the agreement of the National Geographic Society, which was enthusiastically given, but it also required the agreement of the Afghan government in Kabul.

They had to be convinced that first of all, that this exhibition would be well looked after, that it would be presented in a manner that they would find acceptable. In other words, it would be about the rich cultural heritage of their country. That the museums had the appropriate conservation standards, environmental standards, and so on. That it would all be socially insured.

I am extremely grateful, we all are, to be involved in this tour to our colleagues at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because they played a fantastic role in this, including our ambassador in Kabul, who talked with a ministerial colleagues there, right up to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan.

The agreement was then reached that it would come here. But what about the insurance? Well, the insurance for a collection as valuable as this is absolutely enormous. Certainly, the museums couldn't afford it.

There came into play a very important scheme, the Australian Insurance Scheme for Galleries and Museums, which is funded by the Canberra government every year. Where it's possible to make a bid for funding. They came up with nearly all the money that was required, nearly $800,000.

Without that support, this exhibition would simply not be here. I was happy at the opening the other night to put on record my appreciation of that. That was in turn, there was a partnership between them and the Office for the Arts in Canberra.

We've had tremendous support from the Australian government. We've also had support from the Victorian government, who are right behind, well everything we do in the museum here. Very proud that we're able to bring an exhibition like this here and open it here.

We had an opening ceremony. A very nice opening ceremony for the exhibition. The following day, because of the significance of the exhibition, the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, visited it and the Governor General visited it. At least, was going to visit it.

As you know...Last Thursday, lots of things were happening in Canberra. Unfortunately, the message came through, that she had to stay there, in case she had to swear in a new Prime Minister. I very much hope she can make it because she has been to Afghanistan.

The President of our Board, Professor Gardner, Margaret Gardner, who's a professor at RMIT, she read the Governor General's speech. If you have the speech of the Governor General, you mustn't alter any word in it. She had to channel the Governor General and did a magnificent job of it.

Describing the sense, because she's visited in the spring. This particular day was very important day in Afghanistan because it was the spring holiday. Their holiday to mark the beginning of spring. She evoked all that in her speech.

It's taken a lot of parties to bring this together. It has also taken my colleagues at the museum. It's been a tremendous job on their part and of our designers. We have our own designers on staff, but we are also blessed in Melbourne having many, many fantastic creative companies. We worked with one of those to actually stage the exhibition.

We'd done Pompeii. We'd done Titanic. We'd done Tutankhamun. We'd done Mesopotamian. We'd decided the material here needs, and each one has looked different. This one needed to look different again.

We came up with this idea of these fabric structures which would, in essence, provide a setting for each of the four archaeological site. Those structures which would be more abstract than some of these settings that we've created for our exhibitions would set off the exhibits for their best advantage.

We also wanted to stress the Silk Road as the center of all of this. Each of those zones opens off more or less, circular area, which has within it four beautiful images back lit of Afghanistan. The Afghanistan you don't see on the news, the mountains, the lakes, the terraced fields. That is our Silk Road centerpiece.

Before getting to that, we thought it was very important to set the scene. To not avoid talking about conflicts. We start off with that. We talk about the conflict. We also talk about the sites where all the wonderful objects have come from.

Until the end of the exhibition, visitors leave past a series of images of people of Afghanistan, as it is today, with very importantly a statement. A statement in Dari and in English, which says, "A nation lives when its culture lives." I'm slightly paraphrasing it, which was the banner that went up on the wrecked remains of the Nashua Museum, the day after the Taliban left.

When I saw that, that was one of the most moving things I've ever seen in my career in museums and archaeology. It reminds me of the part that museums play in the identity of the places in which they operate.

In a place like Melbourne, where very largely, there's certainly a comparison with Afghanistan, our lives are quite comfortable. We don't see it in quite the same starkness as the people in Sarajevo did as they protected their museum, or the people in Kabul have done in their museum.

Another place I've seen museums playing this sort of role is in Siberia, after the end of Communism. The museums suddenly emerged and told the story of the Gulags. The hidden story of the terrible legacy of the Gulags.

Museums have this role. We have this role here. You may not see it in quite the same stark relief. If you dig beneath the surface of this museum, it's one of our intents as well. That sense of place, that sense of belonging for all of community itself in Victoria.

As you leave, you'll see the wrecked remains. Work has been going on to rebuild the museum. Work has been going on on the collections. Work has been going on to train the staff who had those opportunities to train. At the exhibition goes around, so too does the staff, on a basis where the director is sending different people to different places. Each to raise their knowledge.

Out of this, we all hope will come something very, very good. Indeed so ambitious is it that a scheme has been developed assisted by UNESCO to build an extension to the existing museum, a brand new extension with all the sort of facilities in which you would hope for in a museum.

The present museum, for example, doesn't even have Internet access which of course, we take for granted now. There's a big, big job to be done there. The hope is, our desperate hope is, that Afghanistan has a peaceful future. There's all sort of unknowns.

It was very interesting to talk our colleagues from Afghanistan. This past week, a fortnight, while they have been with us, get their views on it. They do believe that it is possible for Afghanistan to have a future.

If it has a peaceful future, it has potential to be a prosperous future because it has many resources, good resources, but it's, none the less, it is a matter of a leap of faith for them. I think a leap of faith for the rest of the world. As the troop withdrawals take place next year, obviously that is a moment of considerable tension. I hope you found it interesting.

Adrian:  Thank you Patrick, and thank you very much to our kind and generous audience. Thank you very much.


Transcription by CastingWords

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