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Forgotten Empire as Revealed by its Curator

By Sara Omat Ali, Ehsan Norouzi

Tehran- 11 October 2005 (CHN)-Having an Iranian wife, John Curtis, Keeper of the Ancient Near East department at the British Museum and curator of the current exhibition of "Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia", is familiar with Iranian customs and traditions. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Curator of Ancient Iranian Coins in the British Museum, acts as the translator of Curtis in the interview (with CHN Art Correspondent, Sara Omat Ali), although Curtis can understand and speak Persian more and less.

The exhibition of Achaemenid relics, borrowed from Louvre and Iran National Museum and also from the British Museum own collection, is currently running in the British Museum through to 8 January 2006. Curtis mentions the convention of collaboration between major museums for arranging exhibitions on special subjects as a not so old one, approximately dating to some 30 years ago, in the early 70's.

"After World War II," he explains, "nothing really happened here for about 20-30 years. It was in the early 70s that people began to understand the value of artifacts. But technically it was ten years ago that we began to cooperate with great museums like Metropolitan and the Louvre in exchanging objects for special exhibitions."

He considers the introduction of ancient cultures through their objects to the public as the main goal of arranging such exhibitions. "For instance, there is no Achaemenid pottery in the exhibition because we believe those will be somehow harsh." Although the "Forgotten Empire" is not an academic exhibition and is one for public, but, according to Curtis, some sections have a more academic approach to the issue.

The British Museum has so far sent many collections abroad to prepare special exhibitions. Its great collection of Assyrian artifacts which was previously shown in New York, Mexico, and Australia will be exhibited next year in Japan. The fact that the catalogue of the collection exhibition is now under publishing for the second time is proof to its great success. Special exhibitions in Korea and the next year exhibition in China are just other examples of such numerous co-operations.

On the other hand, there have been several exhibitions in the British Museum in the recent 3 years which imported from countries like Yemen and Sudan, much bigger that the one dedicated to Persia currently.

Explaining reasons for not bringing some objects from Iran, Curtis mentions the bad conditions of some of the artifacts as a result of Persepolis - capital of the Achaemenid Empire, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 - having been set on fire by Alexander. "It would have taken so much work to detach some objects and we, British Museum and Mr. Rahsaz, head of Persepolis Complex, agreed not do it," he indicates.

Replying to a question about the insurance of such objects, Curtis explains, "due to the risk and value of such artifacts, we do not rely on private insurance companies and it is the government that supports the matter. The same is true in the US, and it is the federal governments that insure the ancient relics for exhibitions."

The idea for preparing an exhibition on Achaemenid civilization was Curtis'. He chose the dynasty because, as he himself tells us, "there are obviously wonderful material for such exhibition, the subject is unknown to Europe and needs to be represented."

However, Curtis believes this effort is not enough for providing a reformed view of the ancient Persia and its relation to Greece. "This exhibition is surely not enough and it can be considered merely as a step in process. For changing the current perception, there have to be several exhibitions in numerous places so that the goal can be achieved gradually."

Vesta Sarkhosh, Curtis' Iranian wife, who is the curator of Ancient Iranian Coins section in the British Museum, points out to an email sent by someone from "Tavoos", an Iranian journal dedicated to fine arts, in which, mentioning the exhibition of "Iran before Islam", the author had noted, "do not British Museums experts know that the word for Iran before Islam is Persia?" Sarkhosh asserts that previously she had explained in an interview that the word "Iran" was used in Achaemenid era and Avestan texts. "Even Sassanid kings used to consider themselves the kings of Iran and un-Iran," she says.

Curator of the "Forgotten Empire" exhibition believes that museums in Iran can improve their activities. Mentioning Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art revived in the recent years by attempts by Samiazar - former director of the museum - as a good example, he says, "the National Museum of Iran is 70 years old and nothing have been changed there since 1969, the first time I visited it. That is while every 10 years, the artifacts of the museum must change."

Several events have been planned on the sidelines of the exhibition; in a 3-day conference held from 29 September-1October, 250 people participated, among whom 40 presented essays and 5 to 6 were Iranians. "The seminar, I hope, reveals some results of studies on Achaemenid religions, administration, and military affairs," Curtis adds, "though there is not any speech on the languages of the era."

The proposed topics for the essays included "Achaemenid History", "Kingship", "Administration", "Gender", "Religion", "Army", "Material Culture", "Relation between Persia and Greece", "Legacy". In the 3-days event, researchers from Germany, the US, Iran and France were present.

Despite all the difficulties encountered for organizing this exhibition, such as those raised in the final stages of the preparation work when the oppositions in Iran put the matter in the hand of the government of former President Khatami to re-approve the sending of the objects to London, Curtis considers further cooperation for preparing exhibitions on other aspects of Iranian culture possible. He prefers, however, to focus on a perspective in contemporary Iran, which is more interesting for the public.

... Payvand News - 10/14/05 ... --

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