Near the entrance of the Archaeological Museum of Iran, huge pottery vessels painted with simple geometric shapes dating back to the fifth millennium BC proudly signal the depth of the country’s civilisation.
But well-travelled visitors are likely to be disappointed by the unimaginative presentation of other objects inside. In the main halls, a few foreign visitors and a gaggle of schoolchildren hang around old cases in which precious metal and pottery are presented. The archaeological department is the only functioning section of the National Museum of Iran.
“The Archaeological Museum has remained almost the same [since it was founded in 1937]. There has not been much change in the windows, objects or lighting,” says Aydin Aghdashloo, a prominent art historian and painter.
Museums are a relative innovation in Iran. Nasereddin Shah of the Qajar Dynasty opened the country’s doors to the west in the 19th century after visiting Europe. In the 1880s, French and British archeologists received royal permits to excavate historical sites such as Susa in the western province of Khuzestan. Unfortunately, these pioneers took – or looted – half the finds and spirited them out of the country.
To many Iranians, it remains a national disgrace that the Persian sections of France’s Louvre and the British Museum exhibit gems from Iran’s past.
It was only during the rule of Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79), that illegal excavation became a crime that could result in a jail sentence. In 1937, the National Museum of Iran was set up.
Subsequently, in the 1970s, museums boomed.
Under the Shah, prominent institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, the Carpet Museum of Iran, the National Jewels Museum, the world’s biggest jewel collection, and the Reza Abbasi Museum, named after a prominent artist, were opened. However, the Islamic Revolution intervened and a politically motivated sense of culture was promoted. Royal palaces were converted into museums to show the poor how luxurious the life of Iran’s last king was.
Although the current regime is not in principle against promoting museums and all institutions have been reopened, there is no record of giving these priority. The prospects for improvement look gloomy.
Earlier this year, the Archaeological Museum showed pictures of its warehouse to journalists. They showed ancient stones and pieces of pottery kept in boxes piled on top of each other. The impression was more one of fruit storage than of looking after precious objects.
“Running museums in Iran is mistaken for running a warehouse where objects can be kept without sufficient adherence to modern methods of preserving invaluable pieces, their presentation, and lighting and side events,” says Alireza Samiazar, former head of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Art critics say publications are limited, while special exhibitions from particular periods of history or other countries’ art are almost non-existent. “Museums do not have regular and attractive repertoires alongside their permanent collection. There are basically no events in Iran’s museums,” Mr Samiazar adds.
Last year saw something of a breakthrough. In the biggest development since the 1979 revolution, the British Museum agreed to loan the Cyrus Cylinder, a human rights document by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, for seven months until early April this year.
But even this, art experts say, was more a political move than cultural as it fed the new ultranationalist language of the government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.
Masoud Alavian-Sadr, the deputy head of the state-owned Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation, which is in charge of 197 of the country’s 411 museums, most of them unheard of, insists the government is paying special attention to these institutions.
Mr Alavian-Sadr says that 1,000 “complementary” mu-seums will be built by 2016 with “our own patterns” not necessarily “imitating others”.
The plans, he says, include turning some historic villages, towns and forests into eco- and city-museums, and dividing the country into 14 areas that will have regional institutions in modern buildings inspired by local tradition.
The first such museum has recently opened in Zahedan, in south-eastern Iran. Nonetheless, it seems Iran is struggling to catch up with the achievements of the 1970s, when the Museum of Contemporary Art was established, containing pieces from renowned painters such as Picasso and Monet. At the time, this was one of the world’s top 10 biggest contemporary art collections and still is the largest outside the US, Europe and Japan.
Although some of Iran’s museums are believed to have been well kept, art experts say that the perception of seeing these institutions primarily as places for storage needs to change.
“As long as museum pieces are kept in warehouses, it doesn’t make a big difference whether they are under the ground or not. In fact, they are protected more when they are under the ground,” says Mr Aghdashloo.