British Museum blog

Back to Kabul

St John Simpson, Curator, Middle East

This weekend sees the official hand-over in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul of a large consignment of antiquities which was recently sent there by the British Museum with the logistic support of the British Armed Forces.

These objects included the 20 ivory and bone furniture inlays excavated at Begram which were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992–1994). They were generously acquired and donated by a private individual, and conserved at the British Museum with the support of a grant from Bank of America Merrill Lynch through its Art Conservation Project. These decorative inlays were exhibited last year at the conclusion of our exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, also supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

One of the returned objects: a double-tube cosmetic flask in the form of a camel with each hump acting as a hollow container. This type of object was frequently placed as a grave-good in Bronze Age cemeteries in northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) during the late third to early second millennium BC.

These were not all though. The consignment also included the large carved schist statue of Buddha which was identified in a private collection in Japan, privately bought and donated and again temporarily exhibited at the British Museum last year. Another much smaller private donation was a medieval coin belonging to the twelfth century Ghorid dynasty. The coin had been found on the surface at Bamiyan in 1970 by an English lady who kindly offered it as a donation to the Kabul museum after seeing the exhibition at the British Museum and meeting some of its staff at a Guardian debate hosted here. Last but not least there were as many as 821 additional objects which had been seized by the UK Border Force and the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which we had identified as originating in Afghanistan (of which more anon in another post).

Dr Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, collecting the consignment at Camp Souter, Kabul, 15 July 2012 (Crown Copyright/MOD 2012)

The logistics of this return had to be co-ordinated carefully as these were not the only items to travel to Kabul. As part of our exhibition loan agreement, we had undertaken to produce 400 additional copies of our exhibition catalogue, plus another 600 copies specially translated into Dari and Pashto, and we finally received these from the printers in China in April this year. This represents quite a large and heavy stack of parcels!

The timing was finally triggered by a request from Dr Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, who wished to display the Buddha as part of a larger exhibition celebrating Buddhist art in Afghanistan. Many different parties became involved as it was agreed that the transport would be undertaken by the Ministry of Defence but we had to avoid the Olympic build-up. The details and final stages were kept confidential until after the pieces had been safely collected by Dr Massoudi and his colleagues from the British Armed Forces headquarters at Camp Souter in Kabul on 15 July. We are extremely grateful to all who helped.

A British Armed Forces News video about the return of the objects to Afghanistan

A high profile announcement of their return was made during a joint press conference in Kabul on 19 July by President Hamid Karzai and Prime Minister David Cameron. This was particularly fitting as President Karzai had opened the Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum on 3 March last year and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had facilitated the earlier negotiations. Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, said: “I am delighted that these important artefacts have been safely returned to the National Museum in Kabul. This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict”.

Unsurprisingly, our colleagues in Kabul are very pleased and the last word goes to Dr Massoudi: “I am very happy to receive this very fine collection of artefacts … for me all the pieces are very important. All of them tell and show our rich culture and history, but I especially like the Bronze Age collection and the axe we have from this period and the Fire Buddha with flames above his shoulders from the Buddhist period”.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. It is rare that such an exchange takes place, which is nice… But these are lesser objects of value, compared to the others in controversy such as Parthenon pediment pieces to be returned to greece, Indian jewel collections etc etc

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  2. zankaj says:

    Reblogged this on Zankaj's Blog.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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