0911 GMT January 17, 2022
Immortality, perhaps, has been the deepest desire of humankind. To achieve that, it has tried many things – to no avail, yet. Deprived of the mythological fountain of youth, humans consented to making themselves at least partially immortal by keeping their memories alive. That’s what museums do at a collective, historical level, according to Mohammadreza Kargar, the director-general of Iran’s museums at the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts.
The first Iranian museum was established by Nassereddin Shah Qajar in 1874 A.D. in the royal Golestan Palace in Tehran. To put it in a global context, it’s worth mentioning that the first modern, public museum of the world is almost twice as old: The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, England, which was founded in 1677 from the personal collection of Elias Ashmole.
“The real cultural and historical standing of Iran is not known to the world,” said Kargar in his exclusive interview with Iran Daily. Graduated in archeology and art history from the University of Tehran, he has been in charge of Iranian museums since 2013. Among other things in his 27 years of experience in the field, including professorship at the Faculty of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism, he headed the prestigious, internationally renowned National Museum of Iran for a while. Softspoken and affable, and with a characteristic scholastic temper, he answered our questions in his office which was only modestly decorated with symbols of Iran’s rich history.
*Zohreh Qanadi is a staff writer at Iran Daily
Currently, how many museums are there in Iran?
There are 760 active museums across the country, 260 of which belong to our ministry. 280 museums are otherwise state-run, operated by a varied set of organizations including municipalities, ministries, and public institutions. The number of private and joint-venture museums is 182 and 38, respectively.
What are joint-venture museums?
Several public organizations contribute to their establishment or collaborate in their operation. For example, the building itself is owned by one organization while the exhibited items are provided by another.
Do you think a museum can be run for profit?
Museums, by their definition, are essentially non- profit. That’s why most museums depend on government support. Given their contemporary position, however, museums might be self-sufficing entities if established with the right strategy. In other words, they may break even in financial terms if their operators develop a sound business plan, choose a right location, and pay due attention to selecting an appropriate target audience.
That said, some examples across the globe have perfected the art of operating museums. For example, the Museum of Madame Tussauds in London, founded by wax sculptor Marie Tussaud in 1835, has achieved excellence in the art of sculpture production. It operates as a corporation while maintaining its artistic and cultural values.
What about Iran’s museums, can they break even?
Not the governmental ones in general though some of them can fare much better. But some private museums have a sound, if only meager, return on investment.
How many historical items fall within your realm of authority?
The ministry is obliged to preserve all government properties which are of historical, cultural significance. But it directly owns nearly three million historical-cultural items.
What about your oldest and most recent items?
Our oldest items date back to 800,000 years ago. These are stone tools that were discovered in Kashafrud in the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi. My department is only concerned with items dating up to the end of the Qajar Dynasty which ended in 1925. Of course, there are other places such as Qur’an museums which may showcase more modern items. However, the principal authority which handles such contemporary artifacts of significance is the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
What are the proper criteria for selecting modern works to be showcased in museums?
Only a specialist can identify a valuable modern work of art in a certain field.
Two types of modern, contemporary items might fairly belong to a historical museum. First, from a creative point of view, the highly innovative items are certain to find their place in the history of art and culture, and therefore, deserve a stand in a museum. The second type includes those items whose historical significance is already established because of their official value, such as the gifts received by government authorities in their formal posts.
That kind of selection is processed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as I said earlier. When contemporary art experts recognize an artwork for its national character, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts registers it as a national heritage to preserve it for future generations.
I assume you have historical treasures which you don’t put on display. How many such items do you have?
The number of not-on-display items varies with the museum. For example, there are 400,000 items in the National Museum of Iran, of which only five to six thousand are on display.
Why do you hide them from us – if I may?
The are a number of reasons. Firstly, some items are simply not displayable because, despite their research value to archeologists or historians, they do not seem to be interesting to common museum-goers. Secondly, in some cases we have many duplicates, of which only one example is enough to be displayed. For example, Artaxerxes I, who ruled Iran in the fifth century B.C., has graciously left us some 30,000 invaluable coins, identical in shape and form. You really don’t want to check all of them, one by one, when you step into a museum. And thirdly, due to the stagnant development of their spaces, museums have acquired more items than they can actually display. And it’s a chronic issue. When the French architect André Godard designed and built the National Museum of Iran in mid 1930s, he warned that its space would only be appropriate for a decade or so, requiring expansion afterwards – an advice which was not heeded, unfortunately.
You should have a steady input of items as well, right?
You are correct. On the one hand, discoveries are constantly made in excavation sites across the country. These excavation missions return antiques from previous centuries which are admitted to our inventory. There is another stream of incoming items: The looted or smuggled objects that are returned to the country through either legal, judicial processes or following the agreements made with other countries.
What has been the top item returned to Iran, in your estimation?
A top item was an exquisite Achaemenid-era bas-relief, depicting the head of the Achaemenid soldier, which belonged to the Persepolis complex in the southern province of Fars. The returned item completed the puzzle of a bigger bas-relief in the historical site.
How long did it take to have it returned?
Almost two years. But it was definitely worth it.
There is an allegation that during the turbulent times leading to the Islamic Revolution, some museum and historical items were lost. Do official records corroborate it?
Not at all. Neither in the early days of the revolution, nor in more recent years, did we lose a single item to such issues. Those who make such claims are patently unfamiliar with our protective procedures.
There is a system of custodians of historical items in Iran. Each newly-discovered item is entrusted to a custodian initially before being added to the department’s collections. Primary responsibility of each and every item sits with its custodian and it’s rather difficult to have a custodian release an item to someone else’s care. And each custodian runs a tightly secured storehouse.
How many custodians do you have in the country?
Around three hundred. Each one of them is responsible for taking care of almost 20,000 works.
So, you have not lost any items at all?
There had been minor incidents of theft or fire over the years, but not on a major scale. And in terms of the items of official significance, it’s become a tradition for authorities to release the gifts they have received during their terms in office to various musums even though, as you might be aware, one of the former presidents took some of the gifts he received during his presidency with him, perhaps assuming they were somehow his personal properties.
Aren’t you worried about non-intentional incidents taking away your treasures?
To be honest, it sometimes terrifies me. I vividly remember one day I was commuting to the National Museum from home. On my way, I saw fire trucks in the rear-view mirror of my car, going through red lights with lights and sirens. “Poor man,” I told myself, thinking about people whose properties and perhaps lives were in danger, waiting for the first responders to arrive. Then, I noticed that the trucks were following me. And they did, all the way to the entrance of the museum. There I found out that I was the aforementioned “poor man.” A fire had struck the museum, though it was mainly contained within the office area. We were lucky that day.
What has been your greatest regret in this line of work?
Contrary to an assumption some in Iran might have, I believe that the real cultural and historical standing of Iran is not known to the world. The relevant departments could have more effectively promoted cultural diplomacy which serves our national interests and contributes to our national identity, not to mention the fact that they can also be prominent players in economic and recreational fields. That’s where much is left to be desired.
There is a lack of conviction in the potential of the cultural heritage as an effective tool of diplomacy for improving the country’s international image. To be completely honest, people around the world don’t primarily identify Iran with its rich culture and history. In addition, in recent decades, there have not been sufficient scientific collaborations with other countries in the field of Iranology. There is indeed a great need for books and papers to introduce our historical discoveries and archeological studies to the global audience.
How do you describe your job to a child?
That’s a surprise question. Do I have to?
Let’s suppose you do!
I think the core concept I’d have to explain to him or her is the idea of possession, or belonging. I’d simply remind them of the gifts they hold dear, perhaps toys, and add, “You love to keep them forever, right? I’m doing the same job with lots of gifts from the great grandparents of all our people.”
That makes for a good session in philosophy for children.
Perhaps because there is a deep philosophy behind this line of job.
I’d like to refer you to George Campbell who, in one of his books, deals with the question of what life is. He says that life means experiencing; one’s life is the total sum of his or her experiences. Therefore, experience in itself is valuable. He adds that people are alive with their memories. Take away their memories and they will be left with nothing. And what constitutes the identity of a community is the shared memories of its members. Take that away and they will be left with nothing.
It’s a matter of being (meaningfully) alive, then.
And a bit deeper than that. In ancient myths, humans looked for water of immortality to enjoy an everlasting life. That being an impossible mission, modern humans replaced the mythical water of immortality with museums. And that’s what museums do at a collective, historical level. They make us sort of immortal.