Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum

A special exhibition at the Queensland Museum makes me realise, not for the first time, how much better the Queensland Art Gallery does these things. QAG has just closed Quilts 1700-1945.  I went at the end of June, and wrote about it here.

The Queensland Museum has just opened Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul.  A few of these items were on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City when I was there in 2010.  Although they belong in Afghanistan, and will eventually return to its National Museum, at present they are touring the world.  They have already been to Melbourne and will go on from Brisbane (until 27 January) to Sydney and Perth during 2014.

Treasures of Afghanistan

Hair pendant in gold and turquoise from Tillya Tepe

The treasures themselves are wonderful.  They come from 4 archaeological sites, Aï Khanum, Begram, Tepe Fullol and Tillya Tepe, and represent quite different cultural traditions.  The earliest items are strongly Greek influenced, as befits objects from a town (Aï Khanum) founded by one of Alexander the Great’s offsiders.

The most spectacular collection comes from the ‘hill of gold’ (Tillya Tepe), where the graves of a man and five women were found, all of them bedecked in spectacular golden jewellery. This northern region was once known as Bactria. The people in the graves were nomads, and the 5 youngish women may be victims of human sacrifice, sent to accompany the man into the next world, though there is no proof of this in the skeletal evidence. These ‘Treasures of Bactria’ are said to contain more gold than was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb (though admittedly a lot of other things were also found in his tomb), and it’s remarkable that they have survived since they were dug up in the 1970s, hidden during the Taliban period in a vault of the Central Bank under the Presidential Palace.

The last section of objects weren’t so lucky.  Unlike gold, ivory can’t be melted down, which is why it sometimes survives when other treasures are recycled for war, but it is also fragile.  At Begram, a trading post on the Silk Road, French archaeologists found a merchant’s warehouse. Two of the rooms were full of trade goods from both east and west, including an extraordinary carved seat decorated with ivory panels depicting bare breasted women.  These took a beating during the Taliban period, but they are still remarkable.

But QAG/GOMA does these things better.  For a start, it seems to me that there has not been as much publicity as the exhibition deserves.  Various friends whom I would expect to be alert to an exhibition such as this didn’t know it was on.

The Queensland Museum has also introduced timed visits.  It’s true that many of the items are small, so an overcrowded room would be very frustrating, but when I arrived yesterday afternoon, all the time slots for the rest of the day were available, and the rooms were almost empty.  It’s hard to predict demand, but people in Brisbane aren’t used to timed bookings, and I suspect the Queensland Museum may have shot itself in the foot.

A direct comparison between QAG exhibitions and this Queensland Museum one is more serious, and made me want to go back to rewrite my Quilts review (and other earlier ones on Spanish Art from the Prado and Matisse) to compliment the Gallery more effusively.

When the Queensland Art Gallery or the Gallery of Modern Art run an exhibition, the theme is everywhere.  At Quilts, the restaurant offered a ‘Patchwork Platter’ (of sandwiches, and other square foodstuffs in various colours) and they had tapas to go with the exhibition of paintings from the Prado.  For Matisse, GOMA set up a room where people could draw. They even played appropriate music in the toilets – women’s work songs for Quilts, Rodriguez guitars for the Prado.

Coming out of Quilts, I was lured into their special exhibition shop, which had the widest range of craft books I’ve seen since I went to the bookshop at the Victoria and Albert some years back.  I even spent a ridiculous amount of money on a ‘knit a sock’ kit, which – needless to say – I’ve never used. They also had a quiet space where visitors could read a copy of the catalogue, plus a wide range of other books too expensive for impulse buying.

Apart from the catalogue (no sample copies available), there were almost no books for sale at the Treasures exhibition, though God knows, poor Afghanistan has had enough written about it in the last 20 years, much available in paperback.

Once you get past books and posters, it’s always hard to think of appropriate sale goods in a gallery or museum. There’s only so many Picasso-themed mouse pads that anyone wants.  But to remember Treasures of Afghanistan, I don’t want even the most decorative ceramic coaster if it is clearly marked ‘Made in Turkey’.

Albrecht Durer's hare, in chocolate, in the Albertina Museum shop, Vienna

Albrecht Durer’s hare, in chocolate, in the Albertina Museum shop, Vienna

Some of this is not the Museum’s fault.  It lacks the space of QAG or GOMA, but as a result, Treasures was packed into a few rooms, with hangings between the sections to create separate spaces.  This would be fine, except that they are consequently not soundproofed.  The noise of competing grabs of an oldish National Geographic documentary running in different parts of the room was appalling.  Need I mention that QAG/GOMA usually produces its own accompanying videos? It also has a QR Code system so you can look at these videos on your smartphone.  The Queensland Museum, very much the poor relation, doesn’t have public wifi.

Don’t be put off by the need to book, and don’t be put off by me.  If you live in or near Brisbane, do visit the exhibition.  The history of these archaeological digs is fascinating, and the objects themselves are beautiful, subtle pieces which deserve attention for their artistry, not just for the ‘wow’ factor of all that gold, or because, against so many odds, they have survived.

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