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An Interview with Jean-Francois Jarrige,
President of the National Museum of Asian Art "Guimet"

Barbarian horseman,
Afghanistan, Begram, site II, chamber 13
1st cent., Bronze (fonte pleine)
14.7 x 4.7 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.1.92
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet



By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 24 APRIL 2007—Until the 30th of April, the Guimet Museum (the National Asian Art Museum) is featuring Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures. Officially it brings together collections from the National Museum of Kabul. More interesting, it brings together the elements that escaped the Taliban's deliberate destructiveness, and the elements unearthed since the fall of the Taliban. In fact, the great Hellenistic city of Bactra was discovered by the French archeologists on their way back into the country, with their Afghan colleagues coming out of forced inactivity. A certain Roland Besenval, the present head of the French government archeological mission to Afghanistan, had the honor to jump into the pit with a shovel, and he was soon joined down there by Jean-François Jarrige. They soon concluded that at least some vestiges of the mythical town were found (Gengis Khan razed the city in the 13th Century).

I met Roland Besenval very briefly at the French Embassy in Kabul in 2004, and he spoke mostly of the rampant looting of archaeological artifacts. Jean-François Jarrige is also a ceaseless whistleblower on this outrage.

The exhibition features 220 items. One day the Kabul Museum will be safe enough for them, but as Mr. Jarrige explains, the Afghans who are trying to restore true Afghan civilization know the objects are better off outside the country for the time being. I had the professional opportunity of filming these objects as they were being unpacked in Paris, after transport by the French Air Force. I also witnessed the restoration specialists working on the artifacts  in Paris, as much of this work was purely and simply carried out by the Guimet Museum, free of charge... Mr. Jarrige will explain his thoughts on the pecuniary aspects of museum life.

The exhibition's web site is available on in English. The site of the museum itself features the moving closeup of the entire permanent collection, at a closeness rarely found in a museum Web site.

Bowl decorated with a bearded bull
Afghanistan, Tepe Fullol
Bronze age, end of the third millennium, c. 2100 - 2000 BC
Gold, H. 14.9 cm, Afghan National Museum – MK 04.29.5
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Afghanistan: A French Monopoly

HH: Is an exhibition on Afghanistan the result of French diplomatic policy or a purely museographic decision or both?

JFJ: Both, because this exhibition is not the first we have done on Afghanistan during the dramatic events this country has gone through. 24 hours after the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan [28 February 2001 and after], with the president of the Caixa Foundation in Barcelona, we felt we had to do something. And the idea arose to put on an exhibition that we were intending to call Afghanistan a forbidden history [it became Afghanistan: millenium of civilization ] so as to really show the fundamentalists, the Taliban, and those who bankroll them in the Near East, that one could destroy everything in Afghanistan, and yet the pre-Islamic past which is part of the heritage of mankind cannot be erased.

Because a part of the Afghan heritage was in European collections, particularly in France as a result of the transfers decided by the Kings of Afghanistan. The Kabul Museum was pillaged at least once before the Talibans, in the 30s. These collections in Europe and especially in France were in safety and served the diplomatic promotion of Afghanistan which only gained full independence [from Britain] as a result of the Third Afghan war around 1918-1919. One of the first acts of King Amanullah was to establish embassies, and to entrust to France, by way of the French archeological delegation (DAFA Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan) created in 1922, the organization of archeological digs and a de facto monopoly on the heritage of Afghanistan.

Plate depicting Cybele
Afghanistan, Aï Khanoum, Sanctuary of the temple with indented niches
3rd cent. BC, Gilt silver, Ø 25 cm
Afghan National Museum - MK 04.42.7
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: Will this exhibition restore the influence of the French State on the Afghan State, through cultural diplomacy? Or is it a people to people process? Can the Afghan State explain to Afghans the usefulness of this historic exhibition?

JFJ: The bilateral relationship is strong. We felt a certain moral obligation, after the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and we held that first exhibition. We opened first in Barcelona because we did not have the time to set it up in Paris, a few days before 9-11. And a few months later when we opened it in Paris the Taliban were already expelled from Kabul and President Hamid Karzai made his first visit to Europe, and as luck would have it he was here on opening day with Jacques Chirac. This exhibition showed the relationship between the hellenistic world, the Roman world, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, and underlined the importance of Afghanistan's geographic location, which is by the way one the causes of the tragedy the country had just gone through.

Statue hermaïque
Afghanistan, Aï Khanoum, Gymnase
2nd century BC, Limestone, 77 cm
Afghan National Museum  - MK 05.42.14
© Thierry Ollivier / musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: These works of art that King Amanullah [1919 - 1929] had distributed throughout the world and particularly in France...

JFJ: Wait, when Amanullah took power, there was no archeology in Afghanistan, no one knew anything, and so that's when the first explorations began. We knew from the history books that Alexander had founded a city at Bactra [Bactra, also called Bactra-Zariaspa, today's Balkh] and there was this memory in Europe of the Afghanistan of Bactriana, of Alexander and the Indo-Greek kings. The country was part of Western history.

What happened is that the French opened an Archeological Delegation, whose first task was to discover Alexander's capital, Bactra. They failed [discovered by the DAFA director Roland Besenval and student David Jurie in 2002], but at least the digs allowed us to uncover the so-called Greco-Buddhic heritage of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D., and we were able to dig historic Muslim cities, ancient capitals of Islamic kingdoms, and all that was France's monopoly all the way into the 1950s — the Afghans were totally averse to any British or Russian presence on their territory.

Brooch depicting a figure called "Bactrian Aphrodite"
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb VI
1st century, Gold, 5.0 x 2.6 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.40.9
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: So the works that are here permanently....

JFJ: So it was agreed that the DAFA, after digging campaigns, would leave in a specially designed Kabul museum the original works, the masterpieces, but that there would be a sharing of discoveries. And so regularly after the digs, one part of these objects would come to Paris. The kings insisted on this, because the obscurantist mollahs in that part of the world are intent on destroying art works.

The Afghan kings were very keen on imprinting their national identity with this prestigious past, much as Egypt does today, fusing pre-Islamic and Islamic influences into one cultural heritage.

All in all, we French played a traditional and essential role since 1922. The DAFA was forced to close its doors in 1982 on order of the Soviet occupiers. The pro-Soviet Afghan government would have liked to keep it, but the Soviets had trouble moving around with their tanks, so that conducting archeological digs would have been difficult to say the least.

With this exhibition, we had an opportunity that other countries probably would not have had: the French army put itself at our disposal for the transport of the objects, and of the exhibition directors. Remember, Kabul Airport is not the safest in the world, companies taking off from Kabul must make stopovers, and so the French army's role is essential. And I wouldn't like to diminish the US army, but I don't think it would have been put at the disposal of National Geographic for instance, or of some big museum. And since the French army and the Afghan security forces were willing to work together, we were able to transport the works.

Gold Antilope Bracelets
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb II, 1st cent.
Gold, turquoise, cornaline,8, 5 x 6, 3 cm 
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.40.114
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: The government of the United States is more heavily involved in Afghanistan than that of France, in terms of troops and dollars. But France has had the honor of the present exhibition: was this easy to arrange? Did the Americans not try to stage the first exhibition?

JFJ: It is difficult to speak of the Americans because on the one hand for the French there is a close link between the cultural and diplomatic levels, between embassies, research institutes, cultural attachés and so forth. Whereas the Americans distinguish their diplomatic and military action from their cultural action which tends to be conducted at the behest of universities. The U.S. is as big as Europe and cultural decisions of this type are much more decentralized than in France.

The current exhibition is the result of the first one in 2001-2002. Because when President Karzai visited in 2002, rumor had it that one part of the Afghan heritage had possibly been saved by the Najibullah regime [1987 - 1992] before its fall. Najibullah had indeed hidden some of the more outstanding pieces in the vault of the Central Bank, and particularly the famous funerary set of Tillia Tepe with all its gold objects. So President Chirac told President Karzai "it would be fitting to hold a second exhibition here, in Europe, which would be called the rediscovered treasures of Afghanistan". President Karzai elusively said "we'll see", because in 2002 the situation still looked unsure to him, and the general belief that these objects had disappeared protected them from predators.

Gold Belt
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb IV, 1st cent.
Gold, 97, 5 x 2, 0 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.40.384
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

Eventually, National Geographic, and not at all the American government, partially financed the reopening of the vaults and the digitalization of the collections, and the rumor got out that National Geographic was discussing some sort of copyright on an exhibition that would be limited to the United States and limited to gold only, the Treasure of Bactriana . Now it is not our policy to compete in these matters. We simply took care of the reopening of the DAFA in Afghanistan, with some sponsoring from the Guimet Museum, and the resumption of the digs.

When we first arrived in Afghanistan, the various donors were saying "we will give 800 million dollars" and so forth, but as soon as the first four bombs went off in Kabul, the international organizations packed out of there and we ended up being the only ones with the nerve to go digging.

We also opened a school next to the excavation site for 300 girls and 300 boys, and we ran a sort of development project for archeology and local affairs. This kept us very busy, and that's when the Afghan ambassador in Paris told us "we don't see much of you in Kabul, remember that Karzai and Chirac spoke of this exhibition, and President Karzai is presently willing to send the exhibition to Paris".

So we went to Kabul and the President received us. We all had heard that there had been further contact with National Geographic and others, but if you like, President Karzai held similar views to our own: he was not being solicited by the US State Department or another US department. If he had been, we French would have immediately contacted our American friends in order to organize a project in perfect harmony.

Pendants known as "the king and the dragons"
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb II, 1st cent.
Gold, turquoise, garnet and lapis-lazuli
12.5 x 6.5 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.40.1091-
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: Which is something that happens?

JFJ: Yes, but in a sense, we follow the French tendency, for us National Geographic or Paris Match are media partners, but we never entrust our exhibitions to Figaro, or Gala magazines. In the US, things are a little different, National Geographic is used to big tours, I think there was the Tutankhamon or other. Each one has his way of working.

HH: They are a foundation. A foundation and a publication...

JFJ: Yes, but in any event we never had contact with them. And so Karzai said he wished to honor a promise to Chirac, since he had said [secretly] "if one day it becomes possible, I'll speak to you first." And we discovered that President Karzai had enormous regard for President Chirac.

We began arduous negotiations. There were rumors that "what if the Westerners do not return these objects", comments that showed that they did not realize that in France we hold 70 international exhibitions per year, and that it had never happened that the Grand Palais or the Louvre had sold the artwork at the end of the exhibition!

Plate with openwork design, woman and child and female couple 
Begram, site II, chambre 13, ensemble 34 (34, e. 6)
1st century AD, Ivory, 13, 8 x 24,7 cm

Afghan National MuseumMK 04.1.48
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: Perhaps they feared the example of Saint Petersburg?

No, I think it was all purely emotional. There were intrigues as well. There was a first decision by the Afghan parliament. Even though we had obtained promises the day before, "no problem" etc., the parliament voted against the exhibition's tour to France. Then President Karzai announced that "if the exhibition cannot go to Paris and if I cannot honor my word, then it will go nowhere". And of all a sudden, there was a complete change and everybody thought it would be a good thing for the exhibition to go to Paris. After all, security in Afghanistan is dodgy, and reinstalling these objects in a museum would mean protection by reliable security forces. The Kabul Museum is on the edge of town, a place that's hard to defend.

Gold Pectoral with Cameo
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb IV, 1st cent.
Gold and semi-precious stone, Ø 21, 0 cm
Afghan National Museum–MK 04.40.378
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Photo courtesy of Musée Guimet

HH: Will this question not arise upon the return of the objects?

JFJ: Well we think that this exhibition will be traveling to many countries, which give time for a new museum to be built and the security situation to improve. It will be some time before gold objects can be exposed in quantity in that part of the world.

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