‘Afghanistan’ @ Melbourne Museum

16 07 2013

There’s a danger with me and long-running exhibitions … it never seems urgent to visit, ‘you know, because it’s on for a while‘, and I have a tendency to put a visit off and off. Also though, I was quite disappointed with a previous visit to the museum, and so was wary about going back..

I realised at the start of July I probably should get my skates on and see ‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the Kabul Museum‘ before the end of the month. A friend’s endorsement that the objects were amazing was enough to get me motivated.

Compared to my previous visiting experience, it was a much more mature exhibition presentation – quite sombre in fact, the lighting is dim and the colours of the design quite dark (most likely the same design as in many of the cities this exhibition has already traveled through).

Afghanistan has over 1,500 archaeological sites. The material in this exhibition is drawn from four key sites and spans 2,200 years – the period between 2,000 BC and AD 200.” The four rooms radiate from a central vestibule. So when you finished with one room, you exited out the same ‘door’ you came in and then could choose your next room. I was visiting in the middle of a Monday (first day of school being back) and it wasn’t busy, however I can imagine the people-jams this arrangement could have created on a full day.

The star of the entire exhibition, and naturally the source of the pin-up media images, is the The Bactrian Hoard from Tillya Tepe. This is the core of the traveling exhibition.

Exhibition media: “The Afghanistan region was populated by wave after wave of Turkic and Mongol descendants –excellent horsemen and ruthless raiders epitomised in the figure of Genghis Khan. Nomadic culture and ways of life have continued on and are a source of fascination for some observers.  In 1978 Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi uncovered the ancient graves of six nomads together with over 21,000 gold artefacts of exquisite beauty and artistry. Presumed to be royalty, the nomads had lived between 100 BC and AD 100 and would have carried their wealth with them. The artefacts included thousands of miniscule items of jewellery and other adornments that had been sewn into their clothing. When the Taliban came to power and began destroying works in the Kabul Museum, some brave curators hid the nomad hoard to try and preserve it. Rediscovered in 2003, this collection is travelling the world until its homeland is more stable and safe.

The major piece is completely astounding: the Tillya Tepe crown (found with one of the women). It can be disassembled and packed flat; and yet still looks incredible … due to most of the material being exceptionally thin gold sheet. I wonder how much this would weigh if it was all melted down – not much I would think.
And yes please, I would like one, thanks.

exhibition media; A collapsible nomadic crown, (Tillya tepe), 100 BC - 100 AD National Museum of Afghanistan Photo © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

exhibition media; A collapsible nomadic crown, (Tillya tepe), 100 BC – 100 AD; National Museum of Afghanistan; Photo © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

There are some astonishing pieces here, and naturally the larger ones are those giving rise to the oohs and aaahs of visitors. However I found myself completely charmed by the many ‘ornaments’, large numbers of little decorative shapes to be sewn on to clothing. Many were smaller than 5mm square, and they were displayed en masse to great effect.

My other favourite was the ornament for the collar of a garment (which I thought was a necklace initially). It showed the typical use of turquoise and garnets and gold, and motifs used in other works in the collection: almonds, teardrops, discs, and circles interleaved with a shape like a rounded capital-I, granulation. Gorgeous.

exhibition media; An elaborate robe decoration in the form of a necklace, (Tillya Tepe), 100 BC - 100 AD National Museum of Afghanistan Photo © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

exhibition media; An elaborate robe decoration in the form of a necklace, (Tillya Tepe), 100 BC – 100 AD; National Museum of Afghanistan; Photo © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

If you’re at all interested in goldsmithing do try to get there to see these in person. You could of course look at the objects on the Museum’s online resource, but it’s not really the same (though the visit to the museum is getting pretty expensive, so perhaps online viewing may be the best value for many).

I’d have loved it if some of the pieces were displayed over a mirror, so we could see the back … I’d love to know how some of the objects were constructed, if they were cast or repoussé or hammered into carved stone etc.

The distribution of artefacts per room seemed quite uneven, as all rooms seemed to have equivalent floor space though contained quite uneven numbers of items. The effect was most striking in the first room, which felt like such a huge space to dedicate to only a handful of objects – one plinth is dramatically lit and surrounded by an arc of steel cables from floor to roof. This room is for artifacts from Tepe Follol: “The gold and silver bowls from this archaeological site are over 4,000 years old. … have given archaeologists and historians a better understanding of the Bronze Age in Afghanistan. They represent a civilisation previously unknown to scholars that must have had an impact on the major civilisations in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. The area was home to farmers and settlers from 7,000 BC.

The second room shows objects from Ai Khanum: “… the site of the architectural remains of the most northerly Greek city in the world. It was established by descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers left behind when Alexander headed to India.“.

And the fourth shows objects from Begram on the Silk Road: “… one of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan. Archaeologists found two rooms here, sealed over 2,000 years ago and filled with artefacts from all across the trade routes of the time. At first scholars thought the rooms and their rich contents were evidence of a royal palace but later research suggests they were vast storerooms of goods ready for trade along the Silk Road.

These rooms were interesting enough, though I was most interested in the goldwork, naturally.

It also seems common now for a museum exhibition to include ambient sounds. I cannot see why it is necessary, though perhaps to dispel the hushed silence of most museums and put visitors more at ease to discuss the objects.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the Kabul Museum‘ is at the Melbourne Museum until 28th July 2013. And while I couldn’t see this detail on the Melbourne site, the Western Australian Museum site indicates that this exhibition will travel to Brisbane, Sydney and Perth during 2013/14.

After writing the above, I searched for other reviews of the exhibition: this one is especially worth reading for background. I remember hearing of the museum in Kabul being looted and thought how barbaric that was. You can see from my writing above I didn’t delve into this part of the story – not for want of ignoring it, but for lack of knowledge to adequately share the story, and I’m sure there are many who can do that aspect more justice.

Update (17th July): I’ve been thinking more about this exhibition, specifically the awful merchandising effort in the ‘gift shop’.

I was completely flummoxed that there were no postcards of the special gold items (the ones in the media) – I mean really! Surely they would have sold psquillions (yes, it’s a number) of them if they’d been available. Perhaps they were not made available in order to encourage sales of the $35 exhibition book? It seems permission to use the images was granted, as the crown image was printed on a tote bag (no, that is not a postcard; no, I do not want a tote bag). Still, I’d estimate that they’d have made more money overall if they had postcards of the main gold items, especially if they were in a 5-pack or something similar. I’d have bought them.

And the ‘jewellery’ on offer? Oh dear. Oh dear me. I’d have perhaps bought some for my nieces (they’re under 10) but not for myself.

My thought grenade on this topic: I was so charmed by the little clothing ornaments, that if there were a little gold reproduction pendant (while I’d have loved a high carat version to replicate the colouring of the original, perhaps 9ct would have been the most economically viable option) on a delicate little chain (or even not on a chain – I have some at home or could easily acquire one) I’d have bought it. Seriously.

On the day I had spent more than $30 for the entry ticket and audio tour, there was parking to be paid too – so why wouldn’t the museum (quite rightly) predict I may have some disposable income to spend on a genuinely beautiful item? The merchandising doesn’t all have to be … erm … inexpensive; there is room for quality.

And who am I to say? Just a visitor. A visitor who wanted to take something home with me as a souvenir of my visit. But didn’t.



5 responses

28 07 2013

i went to the exhibition on friday and asked about postcards.they had two of the gold jewellery but they sold out really quickly.

28 07 2013

Thanks Rachael – that makes sense, though still such a shame!

29 07 2013

i know!! i wanted to buy big packs of postcards of the jewellery.

2 01 2014
Exhibitions that were: 2013 | Melbourne Jeweller

[…] ‘Afghanistan‘ @ Melbourne Museum, July 2013 a ‘blockbuster’ yes, but it was a pure joy to see the goldwork […]

1 05 2015
3D printing and exhibition merchandise | Melbourne Jeweller

[…] prominent in my memory is the lack of special or even decent jewellery ‘merch’ at the Melbourne Museum’s ‘Afghanistan‘ exhibition a few years ago [the link in that story no longer works; use this […]

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