Omara Khan Massoudi is more of a permanent feature at the National Museum of Afghanistan than many of the collections that are housed there. Now the director, he has worked at the Kabul museum for more than three decades: a tumultuous period that bore witness to the Soviet occupation, Mujahideen civil war, and Taliban regime, when irreplaceable collections were relocated for safekeeping, damaged, or destroyed.
These days, Mr. Massoudi is overseeing a period of progress. Stunning relics from the current excavation at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist complex located in Logar province, are on display in a new exhibition, Mes Aynak: Recent excavations along the Silk Road. Plans are also underway to erect a new National Museum building with state of the art equipment on the lot next door with funding from the United States Embassy and the World Bank.
The director has given countless interviews in English about the history and future of the museum. But this time around my Afghan colleague, Shaharzad Akbar, interviewed Massoudi in his native tongue of Dari, so that little was lost in the conversation. What follows is Massoudi’s beautifully told account of his experiences in his own words. The interview can also be watched in the short video, Who is the Museum Director?, which includes rarely seen historical footage of the museum.
Q: When did you become interested in the cultural heritage of Afghanistan?
OKM: Thanks. When I joined Kabul University, the faculty of literature and human sciences, I studied the history and geography that is closely linked to museums and archaeology. In 1973, when I graduated, I worked as a teacher in Ibn-e-Sina for four years. Afterwards, I came to the Ministry of Information and Culture. For four months, I worked on Kushani international research. Then I came to the National Museum of Afghanistan (also known as the Kabul Museum) and I have been working in different parts of the museum since. It is closely linked to my field of study. You know museums are linked to history and geography both, and fortunately, I have been working in a small part of the museum since.
Q: When you came to the Kabul Museum, what was the situation?
OKM: The museum was in a good place then. The museum was exhibiting 10% of the artifacts from the collection of the artifacts stored in the museum. Storage was full of historical objects. There were lots of viewers and the exhibition was designed very gloriously. Until 1992, this museum was open to the viewers. In that time, not only Afghans, but also some foreigner friends visited the museum, and as days passed, the museum was making more progress.
Q: When did things change for the museum?
OKM: You know that in May 1988 (Afghan calendar: 1367), when the Russian troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, rebels in Kabul’s surrounding areas began firing rockets on Kabul through the summer and fall of that year. The authorities decided to end the museum’s exhibition, because there was fear that rockets may hit the museum. The possibility of fire was also predicted.
One year later, we not only withdrew the exhibition of the objects, but we also proposed a plan to the Ministry of Information and Culture to move some of the important objects belonging to different historical areas to the center of the city for protection. Power was shifting from the communist government to the Mujahideen. And, naturally, it was predicted that transfer of power would create a power vacuum. And with a power vacuum, we predicted that some dangers or risks may face the museum. Fortunately, the Minister of Information and Culture accepted this proposal, and he shared it with the president, Dr. Najibullah, who also accepted it.
President Najibullah instructed the members of the museum to indicate a place that they deemed appropriate and safe for preserving the objects. Members of the museum studied all of the government buildings in the center of the city. At our last analysis, we chose an appropriate place, where in that small area; they specified two cabins for us. According to the capacity of the space, we chose important and unique objects from different historical parts or different historical areas. Then we packed them.
In the presence of a delegation of authorities, consisting of members of the museum and some individuals from the honorable Institute of Archeology, we moved it in 1368 (February-March, 1989). The purpose was that if there are any incidents or problems in one area, the second or third area may stay safe. Fortunately, this decision led to some very good and pleasant results for us. But unfortunately, for the objects that were mostly in the National Museum, which is in Darulaman area (southwestern Kabul), they were really damaged. Especially when the civil wars started during early 1992 until the end of 1994, many horrible battles happened here, and the objects from the museum were looted. Also, due to a rocket, on May 12, 1993, the upper level of the building was set on fire. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the lower level. Most of our storage was in the ground floor.
The objects that were looted from the National Museum found their way to the black markets here. But the very unique objects, fortunately, did not come to the market. The looters were always looking, they always asked, ‘what happened to the Bactrian treasure?’ Because in 1357-58, these objects were excavated by Afghan and Russian archaeologists. When Viktor Sarianidi submitted these objects to the museum, there was instant attention. And it is worth mentioning that in 1980, we put some of these objects on display in the National Museum. Due to security issues, we collected these objects and put them in storage.
In this time, what I think is important is that when national and international journalists asked about the Bactrian treasure, museum staff decided not to give any information about the objects to the media. The concern was to keep it safe. Because we predicted that if, god forbid, any information about these objects gets out, they will face danger. This decision ensured protection of the objects that were placed in two locations inside the city, and they were safe till 2003. At that time, when H.E. President was visiting the central bank of the Presidential Palace, he was visiting the bank storage, I think the bank staff told him that the Bactrian treasure is safe; it is here. The president, who was extremely happy, shared with the media that the Bactrian treasure is still safe. At that point, we didn’t have any other option.
Several countries showed interest in having an international exhibition of these saved objects in their countries. Finally, I remember, in 2005, H.E. President had an official trip to France. Mr. Chirac, President of France, asked him to send an exhibition to France, based on previous relations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. During the kingdom of Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) and in the period of Zahir Shah (1933-1973), we had very friendly relations with France. You might know that after 1923, based on an agreement signed between the governments of Afghanistan and France, French and Afghan archeologists had excavations in various parts of Afghanistan. Thus, H.E. President agreed to Mr. Chirac’s suggestions.
President Karzai instructed for a selection of some of the saved objects by experts from both the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. We selected 231 saved objects that belonged to the following four historical periods: objects from the Fullol hill that belong to the Bronze Age, Ai-Khanoum objects that belong to the 3rd or 4th Centuries BC, objects from the Bactrian treasure that belong to around the 1st Century BC through the 1st Century AD and also objects from the Bagram treasure that belongs to the 1st-2nd Century AD. We chose 231 objects that consisted of 1,441 individual pieces. Before the objects were sent there, we created inventories. We computerized the details and created documentations for them in both Dari and English, and in international standards. First, these objects were restored here for three weeks. French experts came. They were restored, fixed, and were made ready to be transferred. Then for more than two months in the Guimet Museum in France, they were cleaned by experts of both museums: the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. They were made ready for exhibition, which was opened at the Guimet Museum in October 2006. Several countries put in requests (for future exhibitions), for example: Italy, Holland, Germany, and the USA. The Ministry of Information and Culture signed contracts with each museum.
I think this is a good message to the whole world. Especially to Afghans who are immigrants in a different world, in different countries. Afghanistan is always in the media. Reports are published that lead people to know Afghanistan as a country of terror, murder, bombs, explosions, and these things. But I think this exhibition at the National Museum of Afghanistan is a good message to the world, that Afghanistan is not only a country in war. Three decades of war have destroyed different aspects of people’s lives. It is a good message for the world that Afghanistan is a country with past civilizations, rich history, and also was and is rich with artifacts. This message introduces another face of Afghan people, and Afghan culture to people. Many countries have requested (the exhibition) so far and we are hopeful that it can show the authentic face of Afghanistan’s long living culture to the world. It is very effective in introducing our culture.
Q: This exhibition increases interest in Afghanistan.
OKM: Certainly. This exhibition, as I mentioned before, is not only a good message, but it also allows the international community to also learn about our history. And fortunately, I am very happy, that until now, more than one and a half million people have visited this exhibition. Good publicity has been done.
One of the advantages of this exhibition for us is that in addition to generating some income for the Afghan side, we have tried to get each country to print a catalogue. We have requested 1,000 catalogues from each country, translated in our national languages, in Pashtu and Dari. The Ministry of Information and Culture sends these free catalogues to all the public libraries of Afghanistan, and to libraries of all universities. We have sent them so that our youth access the research done about objects of Afghanistan in their national language, Pashtu or Dari. We have even distributed some in English for friends who know the language. We have another catalogue that we plan to officially send to libraries of all teacher-training institutions and to centers of education for teachers so that they can learn about their history and culture in their own national language.
Many books written by international archaeologists about the history and culture of Afghanistan have been published in their own language. Unfortunately, as you know, Afghan people, particularly youth, can not access all foreign languages. Russians have written in Russian, Japanese have conducted research in Japanese, Germans in German and British or American experts or archaeologists have published in English. We send these (Pashtu and Dari) catalogues to libraries as donations, to encourage young people to become interested and read. In future, if we had the capacity, we plan to send these to libraries of high schools not only in the capital but also in the provinces so that our people know that their country has had a valuable history and precious objects, and it still has them. This should become clear and comprehensive for them, and they should study. I think this is another advantage of this exhibition.
Q: When can we bring the objects from this exhibition to Afghanistan? Is the security situation ready for this? And are you optimistic about the future of Afghanistan in this area?
OKM: The objects were here. They were sent for exhibition in 2005. Fortunately, they were saved. Today, it is every Afghan’s wish to have real security in the country. One of the main responsibilities is also to put our objects on display for our own Afghans. And now, these objects are in an international exhibition. We hope that this tour will end after all the countries send their requests. Naturally, it will return to Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Information and Culture aims to construct a new building on the west side of the National Museum, for the National Museum. This building will meet all the requirements of a modern museum that is standard globally. These requirements are security signals, humidity control system, and heating system, as well as good lightening, good storages, and good display halls. Naturally, we will display these objects in here so that all our countrymen learn about their rich history.
The current building of the museum is, unfortunately, not built for a museum. It is a historical building that was built simultaneously with Darul-aman Palace in H.E. King Amanullah Khan’s period. It was used as a municipality building. The objects of the museum were transferred here in 1931, or 1309 solar year, from the city center to here. We use this building as a museum since then. The requirements I mentioned earlier do not exist in this building and it is a historical building. Even if we bring the humidity control system, strong security signals, and also heaters and such to this building, I don’t think it can respond to needs of the National Museum in future. It was based on this need that the Ministry of Information and Culture and Islamic government of the Republic of Afghanistan decided to have a new building, a bigger building that would be a model for the whole region. We hope that these objects will be exhibited for Afghans who are interested as well. We will wait for these facilities to be put in place, so that these objects are preserved in the best possible way in the National Museum.
Q: What was the situation of the museum in the aforementioned crisis periods in Afghanistan? Was the museum closed during the Taliban-controlled period?
OKM: Unfortunately, when the civil wars started, the museum building burnt down and its objects were looted. The museum was in bad shape, but it was not closed. It was always open for visitors. At least our countrymen could come and see the destroyed museum.
During the Taliban period as well, only a few objects were on display, but visitors would come. After the fall of the Taliban, the Ministry of Information and Culture decided to reconstruct the museum as soon as possible to reconstruct the National Museum of Afghanistan. Not only the National Museum, but all of our cultural aspects had been greatly damaged. Most of our historical buildings have been destroyed during the war. Our historical sites have been looted.
I am very happy that in May 2002, the Ministry of Information and Culture took an initiative and invited an international conference with financial support from UNESCO. It was for two days. More than a hundred Afghan and foreign experts attended the conference. This seminar studied issues in all aspects of Afghanistan’s culture. The participants in the seminar visited the National Museum of Afghanistan, the destroyed museum, and fortunately, this drew considerable attention to the reconstruction of the museum. Reconstruction was financially supported by friend country Greece, the US Embassy and also UNESCO. Reconstruction work started in 2003 and ended in September 2004.
At the same time, we tried to establish departments for the National Museum from scratch. We especially paid attention to the Restoration Department, the Photography Department, and other things. The objects that were left from war were mostly damaged. They needed serious restoration. They needed to be restored, cleaned, fixed. The destroyed objects needed to be reconstructed. We took positive steps in this regard. And I am happy that staff of the museum worked and worked seriously with courage and a sense of responsibility and dedication. More than 3,000 objects needed serious restoration, and were fixed and restored. From the destroyed objects, we reconstructed 300, and some of it is put on display.
But the work is on-going. We still have big responsibilities in front of us. The objects that were left from war generally need restoration, cleaning, and reconstruction. But we have limited facilities. Our efforts have continued and, fortunately, the National Museum has been able to expand its exhibition now. We have put some objects on display and the museum is open every day to visitors.
I am especially pleased that our visitors increase every year. The majority of our visitors are school and university students. I can provide you with a small statistic. In 2002, we had 2,000 visitors for the whole year, but last year in 1389, we had more than 24,000 visitors. This year, in the first three months, we have had more than 9,000 visitors. We are hoping to have more than 30,000 visitors by end of year. I think this is still insignificant.
Our services are also limited. I hope we can offer more services one day. And I hope there will be a time when the National Museum of Afghanistan has visitors in the same proportions as advanced countries. I hope that our youth take interest. Although, we do understand the problems of our people, the problems of our school students, that they have many problems. They do not have the financial means to come from provinces to center to visit and to come to the museum. But I am optimistic that a bright future awaits us. Our youth will take interest. Our people will take interest. They will even come with their families. They will visit the National Museum. The museum is open to visitors every day, especially on Fridays, when our people can come and visit the museum without a ticket. There is lots of hope.
Q: Do you have any agreements with the Ministry of Education to encourage the students (to visit)?
OKM: As I indicated earlier, the doors of the museum are open to everyone. My expectation from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education is to bring school and university students here. We do not require them to buy tickets. Not only do we not distribute tickets to them, but also our guide is there for them to serve them in our national languages, Pashtu and Dari. I understand that, unfortunately, the Ministry of Education also has some economic problems to provide transport. But, still our education system is improving. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education are slowly overcoming problems. They have international support. I hope that in future there will be an opportunity for school students to visit regularly. Every day, in every moment, the National Museum is ready to host 200-300 visitors with several breaks. We are ready to provide any service to our visitors, to our countrymen. One of the important functions of a museum is education. We are ready to provide these services.
Q: What were the difficult moments in the history of the museum? Have you ever lost hope in future of the museum?
OKM: Unfortunately, in the history of Afghanistan, these instances have repeated themselves. I am very disappointed when cultural issues are overshadowed by medium or big political policies. Unfortunately, there has been damage. During the earliest unrest, as you know, the National Museum of Afghanistan was in Koti Baghcha, the Presidential Palace. In 1308, it was damaged. The objects were looted. During the civil wars in years 1992-1995, and also in the unfortunate incident in 2001, the objects in the museum were destroyed.
The National Museum of Afghanistan has seen many ups and downs. I personally, serving the museum for 33 years, have witnessed these up and downs. But the sacred religion of Islam always promotes hope to individuals. One has to be hopeful. Our people should try. They should face every problem and struggle with it. Having hope is essential for life. We witnessed very difficult moments at the museum. We saw its destruction. But we did not lose hope. One has to be hopeful to serve his countrymen in all circumstances. One has to take steps with determination. They say that if you feel compassion, a blind eye also sheds tears. We did not lose hope. The big problems that were facing us are fortunately being solved slowly and day by day. And I am optimistic that in future, real peace will come to this country. The mistakes Afghan people made must not be repeated. They should beware that war does not bring happiness to any nation. War has no outcomes but destruction.
In a peaceful environment, one can focus on knowledge, on education, and serve one’s people. I am hopeful that our culture can play a big role in creating peace. It can restore national unity. We have the best examples in the National Museum. The objects of the museum, if one pays proper attention, are storytellers of different aspects of lives of Afghan people, be it political, social, economic, and cultural in different periods. We have great examples in this country. This country has seen up and downs in the period when it was great Ariana, or in the period of Khorasan, when this country was called Khorasan for 1,500 years, or when it was named Afghanistan. Fortunately, this country has offered artists to society. It has been influenced by all different civilizations. It has used them positively and has merged the influences within its own culture.
The product of this, when offered to the world, is very beautiful. It has amazing power. The objects in the National Museum tell us about all aspects of social, political, culture, and even religious aspects of life in different periods of Afghanistan’s history. We hope that in future our people hang on to their past culture, that they go back and search their past, that they pay attention to the present, and predict the future and that this long-lived Afghan culture plays its appropriate role in the national unity of Afghanistan.
Q: Do you have anything else to say? Any messages?
OKM: My wish, and my message to the nation of Afghanistan and to international friends, is to not forget Afghanistan’s past culture, that they help us with reviving it, that they help us with all hardships and problems we face, and help us with reconstruction. My wish from Afghans is that they pay attention to themselves. They should make an effort to preserve their objects as their national pride and national wealth. They shouldn’t cause the destruction and ruin of these objects, because the identity of a country is made of its history. We wrote a small slogan at the front of the museum, it is encrypted on a stone: a nation stays alive only when it can keep its history and culture alive. This seems like a small sentence but it has wider meanings. They should hang on to this and pay more attention to preserving their cultural wealth that is a source of pride for every Afghan.
This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/