Constance Wyndham

Heritage preservation and national reconstruction in Afghanistan post 2001

Since the military intervention in 2001 by the US military and allied forces, international governments, agencies and organisations have been participating in a programme of  national reconstruction in Afghanistan. This rehabilitation effort, which continues to be implemented against the backdrop of an ongoing conflict, has created a highly politicized environment for aid. Against a background of ‘competing globalizations’, foreign aid is understood as a tool for international donors to pursue their own, often implicit, agendas while participating in the building of a new Afghan state.

The Taliban’s destruction of the monumental Buddha statues in Bamyan in 2001 placed culture and cultural heritage squarely at the forefront of a continuing, often violent, battle over cultural values. Since 2001, international governments, agencies and organizations have been participating in a cultural intervention, working to conserve and rehabilitate the country’s damaged heritage as part of the national reconstruction project.

Through several periods of ethnographic fieldwork in Afghanistan, this research project seeks to investigate the intersection of forms of heritage (e.g. monuments, museum collections, archaeological sites, and, intangible heritage such craft skills) with Afghanistan’s programme of internationally sponsored state building since 2001. The project explores questions of heritage in relation to different power dynamics by bringing a critical academic perspective to a wide range of international preservation initiatives, examining how such seemingly neutral projects are implicated in international politics, diplomacy, conflicts over cultural values, and processes of social transformation.

Through examining a number of case examples, the study seeks to reveal the diversity of interests converging on Afghanistan’s past, and the range of values ascribed to heritage by different groups, such as: international and national governments and agencies, NGO’s and Afghan civil society groups. The case studies for the research have been chosen for their diversity of approaches to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage: the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s work in the northern city of Balkh; a rescue excavation at Mes Aynak; the attitudes of residents of the Bamyan valley to Bamyan’s heritage; Turquoise Mountain Institute for Arts and Architecture; two travelling exhibitions of objects from the collection of the National Museum; and diaspora heritage initiatives. 

Funding organisation



 Educational background

  • BA, History of Art and Architecture, University of East Anglia, 2002
  • MA, Museum Studies, University College London, 2012

Book chapters

Wyndham, C. 2015. ‘Reconstructing Afghan Identity: Nation-building, International Relations and the Safeguarding of Afghanistan’s Buddhist Heritage’ in Basu, P. & Modest, W. (eds.) Museums, Heritage and International Development, New York: Routledge, 123 - 142


Wyndham, C. (in press). ‘A short study investigating values ascribed to heritage sites in Bamyan by residents of the Bamyan Valley’, in Erwin, E. & Petzet, M. (eds.). The Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan Volume II, Safeguarding the Remains 2010-2015, Munich: ICOMOS

Conference presentations

Heritage destruction, victimhood and agency: the role of the destroyed Bamyan Buddhas in assertions of Hazara identity. Conflict and Living Heritage in the Middle East: Researching the Politics of Cultural Heritage and Identities in Times of War and Displacement, American University of Iraq, Sulaimani; 10th - 11th May 2016

‘Heritage politics in Afghanistan.’ In dialogue about archaeology and the public: Digging for the future! TOPOI/Berliner-Antike Kolleg, Berlin; 2015

  • Niche of the Western Buddha, Bamyan
  • Tile workshop, Jama Masjid, Herat
  • Shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, Balkh, restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
  • Istalifi ceramics drying in the sun, Istalif
  • UNESCO restored site of Shahr-e Gholghola, Bamyan

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