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Afghan show at the British Museum

Museums do make life easy.  Four years ago I tried to reach the fabled site of Aï Khanum on the shores of the River Oxus in north-eastern Afghanistan, the Greek city built by the followers of Alexander the Great.  Despite having Ahmad Shah Massoud’s ex-bodyguard with us, we were beaten back just a few miles from the site by the turbulent security situation close to the Tajik border. Even if we had got there, we might not have found much: recent photographs show that the lower half of the city has been comprehensively looted in recent years.


Now the finest pieces excavated from that site are on display rather more accessibly just up the Holborn road.  The British Museum’s superb new exhibition of the treasures of Afghanistan illustrates the extraordinary cross-cultural influences that one might expect from this crossroads of Asia:   an Aphrodite with an Indian bindi mark on her forehead;  another Greek goddess riding a Persian chariot across a silver lunar landscape;  Corinthian capitals beside Indian ivories.



But the exhibition also raises some interesting wider questions.  It has only been made possible by some brave Afghan curators who hid the artefacts while the National Museum of Kabul was looted by mujahedeen in the civil wars.  For the past five years, the treasures of ‘Alexandria on Oxus’ have been homeless, on a permanent roving international exhibition that keeps them in perpetual exile but also has the effect that they are seen by far many more people than if they had remained at home.

This comes just as after years of legal wrangling, Yale has finally agreed to return to Peru the artefacts Hiram Bingham took from Machu Picchu exactly a century ago – which is being hailed as a victory for the idea of ‘art repatriation’ by those who would like to see the Elgin marbles and other ‘stolen treasure’ similarly returned, and believe that artefacts are always best displayed in the country of origin.

But the Afghan exhibition – and recent events in Egypt where the Cairo Museum was looted during the riots, let alone the damage done to antiquities in Iraq – are a good reminder that the best policy is surely not to keep all our Fabergé eggs in the same basket:  that a wide dispersal of a country’s treasures is all to the good, both because they can be seen by the world (and the British Museum, most visited tourist site in London, is in every sense a world Museum) and for safety.

As one of the Egyptian curators commented after the losses from Cairo, who knows where may be at risk?  Many Renaissance masterpieces were lost in the flames of Berlin during the Second World War.  A painting can be stolen in Oslo or Paris.  The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is all too aware of this:  it was ‘ on his watch’, as he puts it,  that a Leonardo cartoon was shot at when he ran the National Gallery.  Indeed, it is his view that ‘the mere act of putting any artefact on public display is to put it at potential risk.’

For too long we have allowed the suggestion that museums are somehow an extension of colonial appropriation and forgotten the incomparable good they do to serve scholars and preserve vulnerable works of art.  The more a nation’s culture is shared around the world, the better.  Until we accept that a policy of repatriation of all artefacts is simplistic and indeed overly nationalistic, we risk losing not just the occasional artwork, but the central core of a country’s culture.

A version of the above appeared in the Times

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