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Metropolitan Museum’s Hidden Treasures of “Afghanistan”: Its Curators

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Designer labels: Metropolitan Museum ancient Near Eastern art curators Elisabetta Valtz Fino (left) and Joan Aruz

Addressing the press at the Metropolitan Museum, the final U.S. venue for Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (to Sept. 20), Fredrik Hiebert, curator for the National Geographic Society, the show’s co-organizer, caused me to do a double-take when he unequivocally described the Met’s staffers as “the best people we have worked with in the museum world.”

“Ouch!” groaned professionals at Washington’s National Gallery, which co-organized the show with National Geographic. Staffers at the two other U.S. venues—the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, may likewise have been licking their wounds.

When I began to peruse this spaciously installed, brilliantly elucidated “treasures” show, I soon caught on to what had likely impressed Hiebert—the Met’s deep expertise, combined with a sure touch in crafting subtly perfect installations to showcase its offerings.

Although this was a packaged traveling show, I found it hard to believe that the pithy, deeply insightful, engagingly informative labels could have come from the mind of National Geographic’s itinerant expert, whose description of the objects in his remarks to the press hailed from the “gee whiz” school of art history. While he went on about the “amazing,” “iconic” and “great” objects, the Met’s scholarly curators, lurking unobtrusively and quietly in our midst, were only fleetingly acknowledged.

As I moved through the show, not just my outer art critic but also my inner literary critic kicked in: I knew that those erudite-yet-accessible labels had “Met authorship” written all over them.

Take the one that describes these boot buckles:

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Boot buckles depicting a chariot drawn by dragons
Gold, turquoise, carnelian
Tillya Tepe, Tomb IV, 1st century A.D.

Here’s the label, which in four sentences gives you a wealth of insight into cross-cultural, archaeological and functional contexts:

The inlay of teardrop-shaped turquoise stones is typical of the work of local Bactrian goldsmiths, but the motif of chariots drawn by dragons is exotic. The pattern on the side of the chariot suggests a woven material, and the uprights supporting the canopy look like bamboo. Such lightweight, two-wheeled chariots are known from excavations in Mongolia and from Han Chinese burials of the first century B.C., suggesting Eastern origins for these motifs. The buckles show signs of wear and were probably used by the chieftain during his lifetime.

You can double-click the above image to enlarge these exquisite ornaments, which in reality measure only a little more than two inches across. You’ll also need to enlarge them at the Met, to fully appreciate the craftsmanship of these and many other miniature masterpieces.

So let me offer you some useful advice that I’ve not seen in other reviews for this show—a magnifying glass. Don’t leave home without one! (If only I hadn’t.) The Met ought to make some available to visitors.

I did my due diligence at the press preview to confirm my hunch about authorship: When I asked Kathryn Keane, director of traveling exhibitions development for National Geographic, about the label text, she replied that the curators at the various venues “modified the labels somewhat, depending on the expertise of  the institution.”

But the Met’s experts didn’t merely “modify.” They rewrote.

“We did the labels,” Joan Aruz, the curator in charge of the Met’s department of ancient Near Eastern art, informed me. “We changed the wording to our standards.”

High standards indeed—preeminent, in fact, among the world’s museums.

But the curator who, by far, deserves most credit for this show is Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, who secretly engineered the safekeeping of these objects. From 1988 to 2003, known to very few, they were hidden in safes under the presidential palace, thereby preventing their theft or destruction during his country’s prolonged period of violent conflict.

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Omara Khan Massoudi, in the film accompanying the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition

Afghanistan remains a strife-torn nation. We can only hope that once these objects return to their homeland, they will be safe and well cared for.

[More CultureGrrl commentary on the Afghanistan show is here and here.]

an ArtsJournal blog