The collection includes spectacular objects that were traded along the Silk Road. Because travel was so costly along the route, only items of exceptional value made the journey—carved ivory furniture inlays India, lacquer bowls from China, painted glass from Rom,e and a crystal vase with the largest-known image of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria.
But in order to properly care for the priceless artifacts, the museum needed to take stock of the objects in their care.
Developing a new digital inventory system was a complex process requiring the close cooperation of Afghan and American archaeologists, museum curators, conservators, and information technology specialists. The effort is supported by a three-year, $2.8 million State Department grant—the largest single grant in the Oriental Institute’s history.
Since September 2012, inventorying teams have been recording information about the objects in a database in both Dari (one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) and English. The staff photographs the objects and records information about their condition, noting any damage or decay.
The database now allows museum curators and other experts to locate objects quickly, identify the artifacts most in need of conservation instantly, and produce meaningful connections between artifacts of various periods and places within Afghanistan. The database work also will help establish an accurate count of the artifacts, which remains uncertain.
On a recent trip to Kabul, experts from the Oriental Institute provided additional suggestions and provided acid-free containers to help create microclimates better suited for preserving the fragile objects in the museum’s collections. Additionally, they discussed which storage areas may be better equipped for housing artifacts with specific temperature and humidity needs.
“This help from the Oriental Institute has assisted us in doing our work in a more scientific way. It is particularly important that they are training all of our staff so they can learn to use the database and how to conserve our artifacts,” says Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum.
“Before we did not know in which case a particular artifact was stored. Now we will be able to find it immediately,” he continues.
Massoudi says information from the database will be available at the museum’s website and provide information for museum visitors, which included 25,000 people last year.
“We have a very rich culture and collecting information on the artifacts will help introduce that culture to our school children and explain our objects better to our visitors,” Massoudi adds.
The partnership has inventoried “objects from everyday life that help us see connections across time and space,” says Mike Fisher, who led the work at the museum for the Oriental Institute. “The collection shows the endurance of an archaeological record that evidences incredible achievements of people living in Afghanistan from the Paleolithic period until now.”
United States-Afghan collaboration
The effort requires careful logistical coordination, according to Steve Camp, executive director of the Oriental Institute and the project’s main administrative coordinator.
The project provides for permanent staff living in Kabul, consultants arriving for shorter periods of time to work on specific collections, and Afghan-based partners who offer the day-to-day housing, transportation, and logistical support required to work in Kabul over a three-year period.