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lundi 13 janvier 2014

Cultural Preservation, Collaboration, ...Colonialism?

The New York Times ran a piece about the National Museum in Afghanistan. While your blogger whole-hardheartedly sympathizes with the conservators working so hard to put objects back together, the way the article was presented posed several problems.

The first was the harping on the role of the Taliban in destroying cultural property. The story of the Bamiyan Buddhas is well known, and the idea of destroying centuries old treasures turns the stomach, but focusing on the Taliban obscures and downplays other threats to cultural property. In fact, the article does detail some of the looting:
The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts. In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects — some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.
Of course, some of the people destroying certain objects may have been the very same people turning a profit on stolen goods. After all, the Taliban does not hesitate to profit from drug trafficking, even though using drugs is generally considered to be forbidden. Whoever is stealing from the Museum and other institutions, it is a threat that will remain, with or within the Taliban. 

The next troubling point was the emphasis placed on the team from the University of Chicago. Having worked on a museum collection-focused project that included Chicago, the issue is not their expertise or professionalism. Rather, the problem is minimizing the other international teams, and even more importantly, the Afghani professionals. For instance, why don't the French archeological  teams, who apparently did the majority of the work, deserve to be mentioned by name? 

Minimzing the contributions of the Afghani team is an even greater problem. Consider this man:
Afterward, people like Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, were on hand to sweep up the fragments of the objects that the Taliban smashed — sorting many of them hurriedly into sacks and boxes that later would help the reassembly work.
Imagine spending more than three decades, almost all of it during wartime, working at something that requires great skill, concentration, and more than likely, great personal sacrifice. The others mentioned by name in the article (Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada and Omara Khan Masoudi) likely demonstrate similar commitment and Mr. Muhibzada (the archivist) probably has specialized training. The write-up seemed to overly exoticize the Afghan Museum and to paint its staff as colorful characters, rather than professionals. 

This view has been overly present in reporting about looting and museums, as reported in the NYT and elsewhere. It's easy to draw a parallel with the Timbuktu manuscripts. And it taps into an attitude toward cultural property that assumes the residents of the countries from which is comes are unable to appreciate its worth and need an outsider to do the work or make them realize its importance.

The reality is more complicated than that. From a strictly technical viewpoint, their training and materials may not measure up to the prevailing international standard. Many of these workers are acutely aware of this. And they are also aware of the threats to these treasured objects in dangerous situations. Refering to objects on tour in Europe, Mr. Hakimzada said, "I personally hope they never return. At least where they are now, we know they are safe.” 

And yet, they are equally aware of their importance. Mr Muhibzada's statement is clear: “Archaeological artifacts are our national identity. It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”

The Western view of Afghanistan (and other current war zones, like Mali) is a reductive one, composed mostly of tribesmen, misery and lawlessness. Calling the Museum's collections "relics" plays into this idea. It assumes that the culture in museums is the only one worth saving. As I am lucky enough to work in a large university library, I am aware of the works of literature that Afghan authors have managed to publish over the past fifteen years. Thanks to Twitter, I know of many courageous people in Mali who are tremendously dedicated both to expanding education and to preserving cultural artifacts. 

Certainly, these countries suffer from poverty, war, and lack of educational and cultural resources. The people there do not need outsiders to point out these deficits. But they also don't need to be viewed as uncultured and backward. In the United States (or in France, where I have also lived) there may be a high level of official culture, but there are plenty of social problems as well. It's unfair and arrogant to adopt such a condescending attitude towards the cultural production and preservation happening elsewhere in the world.

Some of the other problems with the article are not speciic to the situation in Afghanistan, but are instead gripes with the way the media portrays museums and conservation. And let's pay attention to the term I used; restoration and conservation are not really the same thing. 

Since I have been working since my undergraduate days in related fields, I may be especially sensitive to how this work is described. And yet, insisting on employing the correct term is directly germane to the issues raised in this article. Conservators subscribe to a code of ethics, they do not put something in an object that was not there before, nor do they intentionally erase anything original. And they treat every object with the same respect, from priceless national treasures to family documents. And this outlook was clear from the comments made by the National Museum's staff.

Finally, it is important to address the idea of professional exchange and collaboration as it was portrayed in the article and more widely in the field. Differing levels of professional training exist around the globe. It is wonderful to be able to benefit from other practitioners' expertise and I know personally of wonderful collaborations that have taken place around the world. However, I am also aware of others that have gone less well. In order to be successful, it is imperative to approach the situation with the right attitude. An experienced practitioner can share his or her skills, but everyone brings something to the plate. The contribution of the Chicago and French teams is important, but the Afghan staff are not empty vessels.

This is something about which I have very strong feelings. I hope to see less of this hierarchical, one-directional understanding of Culture, and instead see a more inclusive view emerge. I believe that this change in attitude may also serve to diminish future destruction of cultural property, by breaking down unnecessary barriers and feelings of resentment from people who have felt slighted.

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