For decades it was widely believed that thousands of ancient treasures from the National Museum in Kabul had been lost; victims of Afghanistan’s violent civil war and conflict with the Soviet Union that had been raging since 1978.
As Melbourne Museum Manager Brett Dunlop explains, “Russia occupied Afghanistan in the 1970s and into the early 1980s and when they pulled out the Taliban became the dominant political force in the country." Because of the Talbian's strict beliefs that religious images or idols should be destoryed, many feared for the safety of certain pieces from the National Museum. So in 1988, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, dedicated curatorial staff from the museum – called ‘the keepers’ – hid the objects in a bank vault at the presidential palace.
For the next 15 years they were believed to be lost, says Dunlop, but that was just a ruse to discourage people from looking for them. “In fact, rumours were spread by the museum staff that the gold had been melted down and smuggled out of the country, but it was just another strategy to keep them safe.”
In 2003, when American and other national forces began the most recent military campaign in Afghanistan, “the keepers got together and decided to reveal that the objects… And they’ve been travelling the world since then.” Now it's Melbourne’s turn to see many of Afganistan's ‘hidden treasures’, before they eventually return to the National Museum, Kabul.
For Dunlop the show is important not just because of the calibre of the items on display – gorgeous ornaments, jewellery and glass, some dating back to 2200 BCE and drawn from four major archaeological sites – but also because it offers Australian audiences a very different perspective of the war-torn country.
“Australia’s been very involved in the war there and that’s really coloured most people’s thinking, because that’s really all that’s been reported about Afghanistan for many years,” says Dunlop. “But like any country in the world, each place has its own rich and diverse history, there’s always something behind the headlines. As Australian and other troops withdraw from Afghanistan and it goes on to the next phase of its existence it would be good to have given more people in Australia the opportunity to think about what’s significant about Afghanistan and it's people... and perhaps give them a more multidimensional view."