Is there still hope for art in Afghanistan? The country’s national museum is back open

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Inside the National Museum of Afghanistan
The National Museum of Afghanistan

Is it a sign that the Taliban is ready to show greater tolerance toward art? Or is it just optics, asks the New York Times? Either way, the Afghan national museum in Kabul — ransacked and closed by the same extremist regime during its last stint in power from 1996-2001 — is back open.

The reopening comes as the Taliban presents a more moderate image of itself, waiting for sanctions to be lifted. Locked away also are billions of dollars in international aid, suspended since the fall of the West-backed government in 2021.

A view inside the National Museum of Afghanistan

With many regular patrons of the museum having fled the country and not too many tourists around at the moment, the footfalls here are limited. Roving around are Taliban fighters, who now reportedly guard the museum and its treasures from the new threat of potential attack by Islamic State insurgents.

This is at odds with the fact that the same hardliners had earlier destroyed irreplaceable pieces of the country’s national heritage housed in these halls. An estimated 70 percent of its 100,000-object collection had been looted. This was also the time that they blew up the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved into a mountainside and measuring 180 feet tall.

The void of the lost Bamiyan Buddhas still casts a shadow in the valley in Afghanistan

Even today, some artefacts on open display are fundamentally at odds with the Taliban’s radical ideology, including pottery collections featuring images of animals and humans.

But chief curator Ainuddin Sadaqat told AFP that there has been no attempt to restrict what is on display, saying only “15 to 20 percent of exhibits are of Islamic heritage”. The museum also boasts a collection of 18th- and 19th-century jewellery. Treasures range from painted Stone Age pottery to ancient coins and religious items. UNESCO and other experts painstakingly rebuilt the museum and its holdings, which now include 50,000 artifacts.

Artefacts inside the National Museum of Afghanistan
Artefacts inside the National Museum of Afghanistan

 

The museum reopened in late November 2021 with permission from the Taliban’s new ministry of information and culture, around three months after they retook power and ended their two-decade insurgency.

Museum director Mohammad Fahim Rahimi and his staff have been allowed to keep their positions, but like many civil servants of Afghanistan, have not received their salaries since August 2021, reports Al Jazeera.

Currently, about 50-100 people visit the museum each day, some being Taliban members, sometimes armed with assault rifles.

An Artnet News report outlined that the Taliban seems more concerned today about its public image and maintaining international relations than it was 20 years ago, and issued a statement in February last year promising not to engage in looting and to protect Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage.

Outside the museum building’s entrance sits an inscription engraved on a plaque: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

A view inside the National Museum of Afghanistan