While Tehran and the West clash over Iran's nuclear programme, their museums keep communication diplomatic

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago's decision to restitute a set of 300 ancient clays tablets to Iran is proof of strengthening ties


Tensions between Iran and the EU continue to escalate over the issue of whether Tehran’s nuclear programme is designed to make weapons. The US is demanding that a deadline be set for UN weapons inspections in the country and fears are increasing of another conflict in the Middle East.

Yet all is not aggressive confrontation between Iran and the West. Behind the scenes, cultural and scholarly exchanges are taking place. These, rather than direct diplomatic interventions, often produce political effects that cannot be achieved by any other means.

In a signal instance of cultural diplomacy, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has returned a set of 300 ancient clay tablets to Iran in what amounts to the first US-led repatriation of archaeological objects to the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The artefacts, which were handed back personally by the director of the institute, Gil Stein, in May, form part of a collection of tens of thousands of inscribed tablets, written in the obscure Elamite language, excavated by researchers from the Oriental Institute in 1933 at Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. The objects date to 500 BC, the Achaemenid era, and are attributed to the reign of Darius I (509-494 BC).

Technically the artefacts have been on loan to the Oriental Institute from Iran since 1937 for study and transliteration. In 1948 the institute returned a group of 179 complete tablets to Iran and an additional 37,000 tablet fragments in 1957. The remaining tablets will be returned as they are translated.

The Oriental Institute reestablished ties with Iran following a conference in Tehran in August 2003, attended by over 50 international scholars with speeches by high-ranking Iranian officials including President Khatami and the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ahmad Masjed Jame. At this event, government authorities invited bilateral co-operation between foreign scholars and their Iranian counterparts. This thaw in international relations comes after a 25-year hiatus in joint research initiatives following the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah.

According to the Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency, the director of the Oriental Institute, Gil Stein, has been negotiating an agreement with Iranian officials for future collaborative excavation projects, joint publications and training of Iranian students in conservation practices. No one at the Oriental Institute was able to confirm this, although a spokesperson said that the institute would be making a “major” announcement soon.

The news agency also reports that a new archaeological project is already in the works near Persepolis in the Fars province, with a Chicago-led team headed by Abbas Alizadeh and archaeologists from the Parse-Pasargade Institute and students of the Kazeroon, Marvdasht, and Tehran divisions of Azad University.

In Britain, similar academic exchanges are afoot. A major exhibition on the “Splendours of ancient Persia” is to open in London next year at the British Museum (September 2005-January 2006). John Curtis, the museum’s Keeper of the Ancient Near East, is visiting Tehran in July to discuss loan requests. Just over a third of the 250 items are expected to come from Iran’s National Museum and the Persepolis Museum, with the remainder from the BM, the Louvre and Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The show will focus on the Achaemenid period (550-330 BC), from the conquest by Cyrus to the occupation by Alexander the Great. Although discussions are at an early stage, it is significant the show may tour to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin and the Louvre, in the countries that, in addition to Britain, have been most vocal in their calls for Iran to come clean about its nuclear intentions: Germany and France.

One act of artistic diplomacy that has come to fruition is the arrival in London of Francis Bacon’s triptych, “Two figures lying on a bed with attendants”, on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. The painting has gone on display at Tate Britain as a result of initiatives taken by Stephen Deuchar, the director of the museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Museum diplomacy with Iran'