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The Race to Save Afghan Culture Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Kristin M. Romey

For the past decade, Afghans have been asking the world to protect what remains of their cultural heritage. A Swiss museum tried to do something before it was too late.

Along the main highway between Zürich and Basel, chemical plants and lumberyards are slung across the hills, and the occasional nuclear plant sends roils of steam along the treetops. In this unlikely Swiss landscape is an even more unlikely museum, housed in a white, three-story compound off the main street in the village of Bubendorf, population 4,400. It's discreet among the centuries-old wooden buildings and stuccoed taverns clustered around it, and unless you catch a flash of an elaborately embroidered caftan in a window--almost riotously creative against the clean, orderly lines of the village--you'll pass right by the Afghanistan Museum.

The low profile of this museum, established under a most unusual agreement between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in 1998, is deceptive, for its mission presents a direct challenge to the international heritage community's near-sacred policy of keeping objects of archaeological and cultural importance in their country of origin, regardless of the depths of chaos and destruction that country has fallen into.

The force behind the museum is Swiss architect Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, who, despite criticism from scholars and reluctance from international organizations, refused to ignore entreaties from Afghan political leaders and archaeologists to find a safe haven for the country's cultural treasures while the country fell apart during decades of war. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March of 2001 ("Cultural Terrorism," May/June 2001) has swung popular opinion to Bucherer's side, and organizations like UNESCO, which did not initially endorse the idea, are re-evaluating their policies on safeguarding cultural heritage.

Kristin M. Romey is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America