Afghans Struggle to Rebuild National Museum

Afghan men carry a box containing Afghan national treasures destined for the national Museum i i

Afghans carry a box containing some of their country's national treasures, destined for the National Museum in Kabul. Last week, more than 1,400 artifacts — held in Switzerland over the past decade for safekeeping — were returned to the museum for restoration. Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan men carry a box containing Afghan national treasures destined for the national Museum

Afghans carry a box containing some of their country's national treasures, destined for the National Museum in Kabul. Last week, more than 1,400 artifacts — held in Switzerland over the past decade for safekeeping — were returned to the museum for restoration.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
Stone carvings form part of a collection of returned Afghan national treasures displayed at the muse i i

Stone carvings on display at the Afghan National Museum in March 2007. A treasure trove of ethnographic and archeological objects was flown to the Kabul museum by a German air force transporter. Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
Stone carvings form part of a collection of returned Afghan national treasures displayed at the muse

Stone carvings on display at the Afghan National Museum in March 2007. A treasure trove of ethnographic and archeological objects was flown to the Kabul museum by a German air force transporter.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
The National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan i i

The National Museum was once a repository of Afghanistan's rich history as a crossroads of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Over the past 15 years, it has been torn apart, piece by piece. Soraya Nelson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Nelson, NPR
The National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan

The National Museum was once a repository of Afghanistan's rich history as a crossroads of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Over the past 15 years, it has been torn apart, piece by piece.

Soraya Nelson, NPR
Construction in the entrance hall of the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan i i

Construction in the entrance hall of the National Museum. Two and a half years since it reopened, the museum still features more scaffolding and rubble than exhibits. Soraya Nelson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Nelson, NPR
Construction in the entrance hall of the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan

Construction in the entrance hall of the National Museum. Two and a half years since it reopened, the museum still features more scaffolding and rubble than exhibits.

Soraya Nelson, NPR

The plight of Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul is an eerie metaphor for the war-torn country's struggle to resurrect itself.

Two and a half years after it reopened, the museum still features more scaffolding and rubble than exhibits.

What wasn't demolished by the Taliban, looted by smugglers or damaged by shelling is mostly in storage. Yet the museum staff is determined to press on.

They've chiseled their determination into a marble post out front that reads: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."

In a spartan room on the third floor, Afghan curators try to piece together hundreds of tiny stones that were once part of ancient Buddhist statues. They were smashed to bits by the Taliban six years ago.

The staff says that Taliban demolition teams came to the museum almost every day for nearly three months. Their actions still haunt museum deputy director Yahia Mohib Zada.

"When they broke the first statue, I cried," says Mohib Zada. "I felt they were ripping my arms out. I realized the history and culture of this country were being destroyed."

It wasn't the first time. Director Omara Khan Massoudi says his museum, once a repository of Afghanistan's rich history as a crossroads of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, has been torn apart, piece by piece, over the last 15 years.

Rockets lobbed by warlords during the civil war of the 1990s destroyed the top floor of the three-story museum. Looters made off with most of the remaining pieces. And then came the Taliban, who decided that Islamic law required them to destroy what was left.

Renovations to the museum building are nearly complete, although workers are still renovating the third floor.

Afghan workers are restoring artifacts under the guidance of foreign experts.

Holland and Japan recently donated glass display cases. And last Friday, the museum staff got their biggest thrill yet — the return of more than 1,400 artifacts, held in Switzerland over the past decade for safekeeping.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be to get Afghans to come back to the museum, Massoudi says. Only a handful of visitors trickle in on any given day. Almost all of them are foreign.

But author Rory Stewart, who heads the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a nonprofit group that is working with the museum, is optimistic. He says the key is to reconnect ordinary Afghans with their heritage.

Stewart plans to lure Afghans to the museum with their favorite pastime: an afternoon in the park.

His foundation was tapped to restore the museum's garden, which he plans to make into a small park with a water fountain and teahouse.

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