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Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul

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by Lucy Graham (subscribe)
I'm a Melbourne based freelance writer with a diverse portfolio including performing arts articles and reviews, human interest stories, and social comment. Visit my blog for an overview
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Uncovered: Afghanistan's secret treasures for all to see
Courtesy of Melbourne Museum
What do you think of when someone says 'Afghanistan'? War and invasion are the prevalent images that spring to mind for me.

Now imagine this. In 1989 a small number of staff from Kabul's National Museum risked their lives to smuggle priceless artefacts away, and into vaults, saving them from bombing and looting. Until their re-discovery as recently as 2003, these 230 precious objects were believed to have been lost to years of war and invasion.
Courtesy of Melbourne Museum

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' is a phrase bandied around quite liberally, but in this case Melburnians really do have a rare chance to view artefacts from as far back as 2200BC to 200AD.

And now, here they are in Melbourne.

Despite the school holidays there were no queues into the exhibition, located on the lower level of the museum complex. Patrons were exclusively adults, and ranged across generations. On entry it is possible to avail yourself of an audio guide for an additional fee.
Not a queue in sight at Melbourne Museum
Immediately after entry an introductory film gives the lo-down. Afghanistan was centrally situated on the Silk Road, a network of trade links stretching for 6 500 kilometres from China to Syria. Afghanistan's position on the road mean it was influenced by a wide diversity of cultures including Greek, West Asian, India, Chinese, Roman and Egyptian.
Clasp with cupids and dolphins
Courtesy of Melbourne Museum

The exhibition branches out from a central hub into 5 separate enclosures, one for each era: Tepe Fullol (2 200BC - Bronze Age), Ai Khanum (an outpost of Greek culture in 300 BC), Tillya Tepe (145BC "hill of gold"), Begram (merchant store rooms of 1-300AD), and present-day photos of Afghanistan.
Gold belt is a study in intricate craft
Courtesy of Melbourne Museum

Exhibits include jewellery, roof and furniture ornaments, jars, bowls, burial items, glassware, ceramic, terracotta and stone vessels. They are predominantly set against a black backdrop, and a soundscape of traditional music, animals, work and conversations add to the ambience of the space.

Look out for the mosaic bowl from Begram in glass millefiore, the cupids and dolphins clasp in gold, turquoise and mother-of-pearl, gold belt with discs, the tree of life crown from Tillya Tepe, and the three glass goblets in enameled glass.

The exhibition is smaller than I expected, and takes about one hour to examine. It is quite traditional in layout, and while there are a variety of communication media at play, don't come expecting a hands-on, or in-your-face experience. This exhibition will appeal most to those with the patience to look in detail.
Gift Shop offerings

Beyond the gift shop, traditional Afghan food will top off a rewarding visit with a traditional food experience in the Afghanistan exhibition café. It is warmly recommended.
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Why? Afghanistan is not defined by conflict and war
Where: Melbourne Museum lower foyer
Cost: Adults $24, Concession $16, Children $14
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