Museum-in-Exile: Swiss Foundation safeguards over 1,400 Afghan artefacts

© www.afghanistan-institut.ch

For the past six years the Swiss town of Budendorf, located near Basel, has been home to the "Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile".

Under an agreement with UNESCO, this museum, established by the Foundation Bibliotheca Afghanica, a Swiss foundation created in 1975 as a centre of documentation on Afghanistan, has received more than 1,400 Afghan cultural objects from private donors and established a complete inventory by dedicated volunteer specialists. In September 2006, UNESCO agreed to a request from the Afghan Government to repatriate these objects to the restored National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

In the summer of 1998, Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, Director of the Foundation Bibliotheca Afghanica, received a request from both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, the two principal parties of the civil conflict, to establish a safe depository in Switzerland for the protection of Afghan cultural artefacts. In the autumn of 1998, a joint Taliban-Northern Alliance delegation visited the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, which had been suggested as a possible storage site, but preference was given to the establishment of an Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile. In November 1998, the President of Afghanistan, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, paid a visit to Berne to discuss this request with the Swiss authorities, which was subsequently supported by the Taliban Minister of Culture, Qodratullah Jamal.

A project for the establishment of an Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile was devised jointly by Afghan architect Asef Alemyar and Paul Bucherer-Dietschi. On 16 April 1999, their proposal was presented by the Swiss Ambassador to UNESCO. With financial support from private donors and the Swiss Federal Government as well as the Cantonal Government of Basel-Landschaft, the Museum-in-Exile was established in an existing building in Bubendorf beginning in May 1999.  The building was transformed to hold seven exhibition rooms, a large conference hall, work rooms, offices and an underground safe. Out of consideration for the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, it was decided not to incur costly architectural expenses. Therefore, the work was undertaken by Afghan refugees in Switzerland on a voluntary basis, and part of the installation was donated. Thus, the total cost of the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile amounted to 1,500,000 Swiss francs (approximately US $1 million).

The Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile was officially inaugurated on 7 October 2000. Over the past six years, it has received and exhibited artefacts, historical objects, archival documents and old photographs brought to the museum by official and private visitors from Afghanistan. Several private collectors, including Paul and Veronika Bucherer-Dietschi, also donated their personal collections to the museum. After the iconoclast destruction of the Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in March 2001, a contract signed on 12 July 2001 between the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile and UNESCO, stipulated that, “The Organization/Foundation will not acquire objects on the market (i.e., by commercial transactions).” Accordingly, the showcases of the museum were gradually filled with objects donated from individuals worldwide.

In total, the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile received more than 1,400 ethnographic and archaeological objects from private donors. Some objects were sent anonymously; others were brought in person or sent by post. All of these artefacts were scrupulously catalogued (using the “Object ID” international standard for describing art, antiques and antiquities) by Carla Grissmann, an American expert who had collaborated for many years with the National Museum in Kabul, and by the Director of the Museum-in-Exile, Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, both of whom worked on a pro-bono basis.
The UNESCO agreement also stipulated that the Foundation would not transfer the objects until receiving written notification from UNESCO that the appropriate time has come to restore the objects to Afghanistan. Thus, in September 2006, after receiving a request from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture for the restitution of the objects, UNESCO gave its agreement for the collection of objects from the Museum-in-Exile to be repatriated from Switzerland to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. The Swiss Foundation Bibliotheca Afghanica will continue to house its documentation centre and thereby contribute to the protection of Afghan cultural and natural heritage and history.

More information on the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile is available on the following website: www.afghanistan-institut.ch

  • Start Date: 07-10-2000   End Date: 17-03-2007
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