Afghanistan’s national museum reopened in late November, according to reports from AFP. The agency’s reporters went to the museum in person in December to confirm that the National Museum of Afghanistan had started welcoming visitors again. The move follows several months of closure after the Taliban retook control of the country’s capital city, Kabul. AFP reported that a number of exhibits from the country’s pre-Islamic era were on display in the museum. This was not the case when the Taliban last controlled the country. At that time, fundamentalists ransacked the museum and closed it down so that anything that was not related to the country’s Islamic heritage would not be on display.
At the time of the AFP’s visit to the museum, only a handful of Kabul’s residents were making their way around the institution. However, the fact that it can be visited at all is quite remarkable given that life in Kabul has changed dramatically since the United States withdrew its military personnel from the country earlier in the year. One of the newly reopened museum’s attendees, a 65-year-old named Rahmatullah, was there to marvel at some of the Stone Age painted pottery the museum has on display as well as to view ancient coinage and other artefacts of a religious nature.
“It is ingrained in humans that they attach value to their past,” Rahmatullah told the French journalists who asked him about his visit. While looking at the museum’s collection of old swords that dates back two millennia, he said that he simply wanted to know more about the history of his country. “[The museum]… has a special place in my heart,” he said.
According to Afghani officials, the national museum was allowed to reopen its doors to the public after permission was granted by the country’s new ministry of information and culture. This ministry was set up three months after the Taliban regained control of the Afghani state following an insurgency that had lasted for two decades. Some had feared that the new regime would operate in the same way as it had done when the Taliban was in charge of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
This is because a number of the artefacts on open display at the museum are known to be at odds with the religious ideology of the Taliban. Some items of pottery in the museum’s collection feature images of animals and humans, something that should be banned, according to some in the Taliban, at least. During their first period of rule, Taliban fighters were known to have deliberately destroyed and vandalised cultural relics and works of art they disapproved of. This included some notable statues at the museum. In addition, several thousand artefacts were looted from the national museum and other cultural institutions. Whether these were sold or destroyed is unknown but they have never been recovered.
A Change of Regime?
The reopening of the museum marks something of a change for the Taliban. As an organisation, it had been responsible for blowing up some ancient statues of the Buddha in the country’s central Bamiyan valley, an act that was condemned around the world at the time. However, the Taliban has now placed some of its fighters at the National Museum to guard the many treasures it still holds. This is because there is a genuine fear of potential attacks from other Islamist groups – including Islamic State insurgents – who operate in the country.
Furthermore, according to the museum’s chief curator, Ainuddin Sadaqat, the Taliban has not attempted to restrict what the museum is able to have on display. Sadaqat told the AFP that only a small proportion of the museum’s exhibits are of Islamic heritage but this had not prevented the museum from opening on its own terms. He even claimed that since the museum had reopened, some of the visitors had been from the Taliban itself, even coming in large numbers on organised tours. Whether this apparently liberal attitude to some of Afghanistan’s history will continue is not yet known but the museum is able to operate in a reasonably straightforward manner for now while some of the country’s other cultural institutions remain closed.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.