Carla Grissman, one of the great defenders of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, has died in her eighties at her home in London. From 1969 she was involved in supporting the National Museum in Kabul. From its pre-war glory days as one of the best ‘small’ museums in the world(*), through to the worst of times – the Amin coup, the civil war, Taleban rule – Carla Grissman was critical to the museum’s survival. She is remembered with affection by many, including AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark.
I first met Carla in 2000 during the Taleban regime when she was in her seventies and in her thirty-first year of involvement with the Kabul Museum. She was frail even then, but indomitable and passionate, as upright and elegant as a twenty-year old dancer. Always dressed in black and wearing the flimsiest of chiffon headscarves, she dealt with Taleban officials with more confidence and steely determination than any other woman I saw.
This was before the Taleban took their savage decision to destroy the statues in the museum and the Buddhas at Bamyan(**) and Carla and the museum staff had the support of the Taleban Ministry of Culture in their painstaking cataloguing of what had survived the mujahedin’s looting during civil war. The museum had been on the frontline in the 1990s and was hit by rockets. The building was severely damaged and all the records burned; only fragments and what was too heavy to steal had been left.(***) Carla gave me an interview only with extreme reluctance – and in typically self-effacing fashion, spoke only about her Afghan colleagues.
“The people round this table are the heroic members of the former glorious museum. This is the fifth year they’ve been working like that – with no electricity, no light. The first year, they were working in the storerooms – with no air, no light, only kerosene lamps. They wrapped their faces in cloths to protect them – and without complaint.”
Carla’s heroism was no less enduring. She was back soon after the fall of the Taleban helping to catalogue what had been left after the Taleban’s own frenzy of destruction; this time, however, some of the shattered statues were re-built. She was finally present when the most valuable objects in the museum’s collection, the 20,000 pieces of Bactrian gold, were revealed and inventoried. She was among the few to have known they were safe all through the war, but had discretely kept quiet.(****)
Many others remember Carla with great fondness. There follows an obituary from Jolyon Leslie, former head of the Agha Khan Cultural Foundation, and tributes from others who have also played pivotal roles in protecting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage: Omari Khan Massudi, director of the Kabul Museum and the former MP, Mir Ahmad Joyenda (who worked with Carla during the Taleban era); there is also a tribute from the former Keeper of the Asia Collection at the British Museum, Robert Knox. Photographs of Carla in the 1950s can also be seen here.
Jolyon Leslie, former director of the Agha Khan Cultural Foundation, writes:
Carla Grissman, who died in London on 15th February 2011, was a central figure in the study of and protection of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Having travelled widely, and written a poetic book about village life in Turkey(*****), Carla’s involvement with Afghanistan seems to have begun in 1969, when she started work at the Kabul Museum, and quickly became an indispensable member of the staff, working closely with everyone from the Director to the storekeepers. Soon she became an expert on the collections, and was often consulted by the media and scholars. Her publications include entries in the Encyclopaedia Iranica (Columbia University, 2003) and prestigious magazines such as Museum International(Oxford, 2003). After 1978, when it was no longer possible for Carla to be in Kabul, she worked in Peshawar, Pakistan, for the Asia Foundation and groups assisting Afghan refugees. She was a founder-member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH), established to raise awareness about the threats facing the cultural heritage of the country.
As the conflict intensified around Kabul, the contents of the museum were moved to safe havens on nine occasions between 1979 and 2001. Carla provided invaluable support to museum staff in most of these exercises, and her subsequent descriptions of these transfers bring across the sense of the chaotic reality, while consistently acknowledging the valiant efforts of most museum staff. The conditions under which the packing of the collection took place were hectic and uncomfortable, but Carla was unstinting in her work, helping to photograph and inventory each and every artefact with her characteristic rigour. This earned her the loyalty of all of the Afghans with whom she worked, from the humble tea-maker to the tawildar, who were the custodians of the keys to the stores, and who adored her. At a time when many were claiming association – usually from abroad – with efforts to safeguard the collection, Carla stood out for her unassuming manner and fierce determination. While she did not suffer fools, her raucous sense of humour – and amazing laugh – kept Carla and everyone working with her going in the face of massive challenges.
At times when the situation did not allow Carla to be in Kabul, she continued to lobby and work behind the scenes to trace looted objects. Through her formidable contacts in Europe and the US, she was able to keep curators and dealers aware of developments regarding the collection, and advise them on the provenance of objects that might have come from the museum. True to character, when the material from the collection that had been stored in the vault at the Arg palace in Kabul was opened in 2004, Carla was there to witness the process – although she later admitted that she found the fanfare with which the members of the government used the occasion to present themselves as saviours of cultural property a travesty. This did not deter her, however, from staying on to work on yet another inventory, as only she had the knowledge to ensure that everything was accounted for in the museum.
In recent years, unable to travel herself to Kabul, Carla was still on the case of Afghan culture, and received a steady stream of visitors to her elegant flat in central London. Just as she had done with her Afghan colleagues at the museum in Kabul, she put a huge amount of energy into advising and encouraging others with shared interests. Afghanistan owes much to Carla Grissman for her contribution to safeguarding and raising awareness about the rich cultural heritage of the country. She will be missed by a huge number of Afghans and others who had the privilege to work with her.
From Omari Khan Massudi, Director of the Afghanistan National Museum:
I’m personally very unhappy and sad. The Afghan National Museum has lost one of its best friends.
With severe unhappiness, we found out that one of the friends of Afghan culture, one of the friends especially of the national museum is no more with us. Miss Carla had worked with the museum since 1973. When Amin came to power [September 1979], he transferred the presidential palace to Taj Beg hill and occupied all the lands around and ordered that the museum should be given up to the military. During this time, Carla was working with Asia Foundation and she was the only foreigner helping us, boxing up exhibits to transfer them safely to Sardar Na’im’s house [then head of protocol for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and close to the former president, Daoud Khan] for safe-keeping. Her experience helped ensure nothing was lost or broken.
During the civil war, 14 rockets were fired at the museum in one day. Carla and I were both there. She wasn’t scared. She was just crying for the war and the losses of people and of the pieces of the collection.
In 1995, the museum came under governmental control and the ministry decided to make an inventory of the collection. Carla was working with SPACH and helped us to translate the inventory from Dari to English; that was completed in 2000. During 2004, we again made an inventory. Again, Carla, one of the most expert people of the Afghan museum, helped us. She helped the museum in understanding the ancient and historic periods because she was so experienced. She also made the inventory of the ancient pieces in the Afghan Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland – founded in 1998 after a joint request by the Taleban and Northern Alliance and established by Paul Bucherer (see here for more information) and was part of the team which helped transfer these pieces to Kabul in 2007 and install them in the museum.
Although she wasn’t very well, her heart was always with the Afghan culture. The museum, the administration and I are all very sad and send our condolences to her family. We hope to have a memorial for her here in Kabul in the coming month.
Robert Knox, former Keeper, Asia Department, British Museum, writes:
Carla Grissman was an indomitable, loyal, dedicated, hardworking and fearless supporter of all things Afghan. Her work for the National Museum at Kabul, in its time of desperate need was of the highest importance to its very survival. She is remembered as a delightful and charming friend by her many close companions, cultivated, exotic, easy and full of love and good humour. She will be much missed.
Mir Ahmad Joyenda, former colleague of Carla Grissman and 2005 MP for Kabul, writes:
We worked for a long time alongside each other, in SPACH and at the museum. Her great work was the inventory of the collection of the National Museum. Even when she was an elderly woman, with her hands trembling, she worked hard, trying to write the words in the correct way and complete the inventory; she would bring the documents to me and cry, “When will be able to make a complete inventory of all the old and ancient things of this country?” I remember the day when the Taleban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan, she was so very sad. We talked all day about how we could try to make the collection safe.
Abdul Wasey Ferozi, Director of the Institute of Archaeology, interviewed at his office in Kabul on 7 September 2009 by Joanie Meharry, Aga Khan Trust for Culture:
In 1995 and 1996 a little bit of the situation calmed and we were able to go to Kabul Museum. We suggested to the government that we go to the museum at that time. It was Rabbani’s ruling, and he also accepted our suggestion that these remaining objects in the museum move to the Kabul Hotel. We shipped all of these objects to the Kabul Hotel with the hard work of Madam Carla Grissmann. She was very brave, we respect her a lot, and she helped us a lot. Also, Nancy jan… It was for us to know the value of her [Carla’s] work.
* Museums usually have objects from many diverse places, Carla once told me, but Kabul Museum was special because all its objects had been found in Afghanistan; yet their origins were from across Asia. They had come to Afghanistan in their own time, when Afghanistan was on the crossroads of the ancient world.
** In August 2000 to celebrate Afghanistan Independence Day, the Museum opened for the first time in more than a decade, with the full support of the Taleban authorities, including the then president of the museum, Naqibullah Ahmadyar, who explained why the Taleban supported the exhibit, despite there being statues of human beings on display: “It’s nothing to do with ideology. It’s about the culture and history of the country and how the country has been defined by them. We’re not opposed to this exhibition in principle – because the exhibits are part of our history. And everything which happens in the country becomes part of the country and the government is obliged to preserve it.” Six months later of course, those statues were smashed, but after 2001, many of the shards were lovingly and painstakingly put back together and the statues can be seen again at the museum.
*** In 2000, staff estimated that 70 per cent of the exhibits had been stolen. In fact since 2001, some objects have come to light and less is missing than was then thought.
**** If you are in London, you can see part of the Bactrian collection at the British Museum from 3 March 2011.
***** Dinner of Herbs, Arcadia: 2001 is the beautiful and lyrical account of the year Carla spent in a small village in Anatolia, Turkey in the 1960s.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020