by Martin Perschler, Editor
The May 2008 press release announcing the exhibit, "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, says it all: "Extraordinary artifacts uncovered in modern-day Afghanistan—once the heart of the Silk Road linking cultures from Asia to the Mediterranean—long thought stolen or destroyed during some 25 years of conflict until the dramatic announcement of their existence in 2003." Exhibits like this one, where the gripping story of the cultural objects' discovery, disappearance, and amazing rediscovery shares center stage with the objects themselves, are very rare.
This exhibit, which travels to San Francisco, Houston, and New York before leaving the United States, relates extraordinary stories about the people associated with the objects—people like Alexander the Great, the tradesmen who traversed the Silk Road, and nomadic conquerors. It also includes stories of modern discoverers of many sites and objects featured in the exhibit, from the farmers whose activities in northern Afghanistan led to the discovery of the Bronze Age site of Tepe Fullol, to the archeologist Victor Sarianidi, whose Soviet-Afghan team uncovered the graves of six nomads bedecked in gold jewelry and ornaments—the so-called Bactrian Hoard—at the site of Tillya Tepe in 1978.
The heroic stories of the brave protectors of many cultural objects during 25 years of turmoil began with the Soviet invasion in 1979—Afghans who, in the words of Terry Garcia, executive vice president for Mission Programs at exhibit co-sponsor National Geographic Society, "risked their own safety to hide and protect these treasures." They did not take risks for personal gain but to preserve objects important to Afghans' cultural heritage and identity.
Extreme events—from natural disasters to armed conflict—often bring out the best in people. In times of crisis, cultural heritage professionals the world over protect or rescue objects or sites in their care from fire and flood, theft, misuse, neglect, and wanton destruction. They are frequently joined by law enforcement officers, firemen, and soldiers who may not be experts in cultural heritage but recognize its value to society.
All too often we fail to think about those who risk their own lives for the safety of others and things we hold dear. The ICOMOS General Assembly convened recently in Quebec City, Canada, to contemplate the genius loci, or spirit of the place. What would become of the spirit of the place—or the spirit of a culture—if there were no one to look after it in times of crisis?
When elements of our cultural identity are lost, the feelings of despair for both the past and the future can be indescribable. The euphoria that comes with the discovery that all is not lost, that someone cared enough to protect the irreplaceable, can be equally indescribable. The world needs more of the latter.
As editor of CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship since 2006, I have derived great satisfaction from knowing that CRM Journal reaches a wide audience in the United States and overseas. Whether in paper or electronic format, the journal is now and will, I hope, continue to be available at no cost anywhere in the world. Although some barriers to universal access stubbornly persist (the journal is printed in English only, for instance, and access to the electronic edition presupposes a live and reliable Internet connection), the growing number of essays submitted for publication by cultural research professionals living and working outside the U.S. is a solid indication that the business model is working, that the journal is reaching people on all continents.
As I relinquish the editor's chair and move from the National Park Service to the Cultural Heritage Center in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, I leave CRM Journal in the capable hands of Barbara Little. Dr. Little, an archeologist with the National Park Service since 1992, has worked in the National Capital Regional Office, the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program, and is currently in the Washington office Archeology Program. Her commitment to cultural heritage and her experience as a scholar and federal employee will serve the journal well. Readers are invited to send inquiries about publication to Dr. Little at NPS_CRMJournal@nps.gov.