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Return of 1,400 Artefacts to National Museum of Afghanistan
The director of the National Museum of Afghanistan Omara Khan Masoudi shows an artifact believed to have been touched by Alexander the Great.

KABUL.-Some 1,400 Afghan ethnographic and archaeological objects, preserved since 1999 at the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile (Bubendorf, Switzerland) under the aegis of UNESCO, were handed over to the National Museum in Kabul on 16 March. The operation, organized by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, is financed by Switzerland’s National Commission to UNESCO, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the German Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for the transport.

“Repatriating this collection that we have preserved for six years in the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile in Bubendorf, Switzerland, means giving back to Afghanistan a part of its memory. The country needs this to reconstruct its identity,” said Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO.

According to the terms of an agreement with UNESCO, the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile received 1,400 pieces from private donors. Volunteer specialists made a complete inventory of the artefacts. In order not to incite the illicit export of works of art from Afghanistan, the contract stipulated that no objects would be bought. The museum, which just closed, was established by the Foundation Bibliotheca Afghanica, a Swiss foundation created in 1975 as a centre of documentation on Afghanistan. Financed by private donors, the Swiss Federal Government and the Cantonal Government of Basel-Landschaft, the Museum-in-Exile project cost about US$1 million.

UNESCO also contributed to the reconstruction of the National Museum of Afghanistan, which is now ready to house the collection. Founded in 1930, the museum was looted and deliberately vandalized under the Taliban regime. Since the fall of that regime in 2001, UNESCO has been organizing and coordinating national and international efforts to rehabilitate the establishment. As a result of these initiatives, the National Museum was able to open to the public again in October 2004.

Since 2002, the building has been entirely restored and equipped, thanks to funds given notably by Italy, the United States, Greece and Japan, with the participation of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH), the National Geographic Society, the British Museum, the Musée Guimet in Paris and other donors.

Meanwhile, UNESCO launched a comprehensive training programme in inventory, conservation, exhibiting collections and publications. The Organization further contributed to the completion of an inventory of nearly 75% of the museum’s holdings and the construction of a database. Last October, UNESCO published an illustrated inventory of pieces found in the national museum’s showcases and reserves until 1985 (Francine Tissot, Catalogue of The National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931-1985, UNESCO Publishing, 2006). An educational and practical tool, it conserves the memory of now-scattered collections and can help in their reconstitution.

UNESCO’s action on behalf of Afghanistan's cultural heritage goes back to the 1970s and the international campaign for the safeguarding of the city of Herat. Since then, the Organization has notably produced an inventory of the Bagram ivories, constituting the only testimony to the entire collection of these objects, most of which have now disappeared. Currently UNESCO is pursuing the effort to consolidate the cliffs of Bamiyan, the fifth Herat minaret and the minaret of Jam, the first Afghan site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List (in 2002).

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