Creating the Exhibition

Exploring the past can reveal a path to a brighter future. In Small Things Remembered embodies Meridian International Center’s mission to promote international understanding. It is offered to the people of the United States and Afghanistan in the hope that these reproductions of archival photographs and documents will provide insight into early U.S.-Afghan relations and the friendships they engendered.

Students in a village school view a film-strip
presentation on a sunlight-powered slide projector.

Location unknown, late 1950s
Courtesy of the National Archives Still Picture Unit.
Photograph by James A. Cudney.

The making of the exhibit was a fascinating voyage of discovery and the search lasted for nearly a year. We were inspired by James Deetz’s insightful book about the archaeology of Colonial America, which describes how long-ago events are recreated through the recovery of small, forgotten objects. (* James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press; Doubleday), 1977.) Meridian envisioned a similar scenario in which research would be “archaeological” and lead to the recovery of materials pulled from their original contexts and filed away in archives and university collections. It soon became apparent, however, that the history of the early relationship between the United States and Afghanistan also lived on in vivid memory.

This human element shifted our focus from forgotten to remembered, as we uncovered a network of individuals who shared recollections about events that took place decades ago and half a world away. We spoke with Afghans who had organized specific initiatives, held leadership roles, or recalled key people and places, as well as American aid workers, engineers, scholars, and diplomats. They shared information generously and introduced us to friends and colleagues who were able to fill in the missing pieces. Often, we found that participants could shed light on photographs as if they had been taken just yesterday. Many American expatriates who once lived in Afghanistan spoke of their time there in glowing terms. Afghans as well seemed to be reliving some of the happiest times of their lives.

We organized the exhibit into five themes. The initial section, titled “Early Contacts,” spans the period from 1911 until the countries exchanged ambassadors in 1948. Although the first American to live in Afghanistan arrived in the 1820s, uninterrupted U.S.-Afghan connections began only one hundred years ago when an American engineer employed by Emir Habibullah constructed a hydroelectric plant at Jabal Seraj near Kabul. This portion of the exhibit contains photographs of journalists, explorers, and businessmen who visited Afghanistan, images of the first Afghans to study in the United States, and reproductions of correspondence between the governments from the 1920s and 1930s.

The second theme of the exhibition is centered on “Official Visits” by U.S. and Afghan leaders and includes rare photographs that chronicle notable moments in our shared history. Some examples are Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud’s address to the U.S. Congress in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1959 trip to Kabul, King Zahir Shah’s 1963 meeting with President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C., and the Monarch’s subsequent American tour.

Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud addresses
the U.S. House of Representatives.

Washington, D.C., 1958
Courtesy of the National Archives Still Picture Unit.
Photograph by Oliver Pfeiffer.

In “Education and Outreach,” images do­cument several of the most successful American aid programs. These include Peace Corps initiatives, academic studies by Afghans in America, and gatherings at the U.S. Information Service Library. Because artistic exchanges have always been one of the most effective tools for the people of each nation to learn about each other, the fourth theme features “Cultural Diplomacy.” It highlights the activities of musicians, archaeologists, dancers, architects, and even children. The section presents familiar figures such as Louis Dupree, a renowned U.S. scholar on Afghanistan, and some surprising visitors – jazz greats Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.

The fifth and final theme of the exhibit is “Developing the Infrastructure” and explores collaborative projects that introduced new technologies to Afghanistan and provided professional and vocational training for Afghans. Although dam construction and highway building were monumental undertakings, the photographs in the show lend a human perspective to these efforts by capturing moments in time. Ultimately, such snapshots reveal the greatest achievement of all – friendship based on shared experience. Examples include American rural project workers and Afghan villagers relaxing along the roadside; a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) agricultural specialist deep in conversation with a local farmer; and Kabul children viewing a scale model of the Helmand Valley’s Kajaki Dam at the 1958 Jeshyn Fair with wide-eyed amazement.

Our search for photographs and documents in archives, universities, and private collections was facilitated by archivists and others enthusiastic about the exhibition. Many photos were discovered as a result of these conversations: a Texas livestock expert’s arrival in Kabul after a 65-hour journey to bring prized cattle from the United States to Afghanistan; the Afghan workers who assembled the U.S. pavilion in record-breaking time for the 1956 Jeshyn Fair; and the first Afghan baseball teams organized in the mid-1940s. Additional images of note are an Afghan aviator as he proudly receives his pilot stripes; a Peace Corps Volunteer walking hand-in-hand with her young Afghan students; and American and Afghan musicians conferring before their performance at the 1968 Jeshyn Fair.

Over forty lenders contributed to this exhibit and many individuals provided the information required to make its content accessible for non-experts. Since we lack sufficient space to properly thank all who assisted, Meridian has created an acknowledgment page on its website. It is important to recognize Terry Harvey, Meridian’s Director of Exhibitions, whose dedication and skill have been invaluable to this process. Lindsay Amini, Meridian’s Exhibitions Coordinator, Erica Cosgrove, formerly of our staff, and Heather Rose, Arts Intern, also contributed significantly. Dr. Christopher Thornton has been an essential member of our group, and his initial role as researcher grew over time to include curation and writing. Dr. Fredrik Hiebert of the National Geographic Society shared his vast knowledge of Afghanistan and encouraged us to organize the exhibit in ways most beneficial to the people of both nations.

Tad Hershorn from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, employed his Photoshop skills to bring these images, some severely damaged, back to life. James Schoomaker of 204 Studios in Chattanooga, Tennessee, created beautiful color-corrected prints, and Bob Moore and the craftsmen at FrameMasters in Fairfax, Virginia, fabricated sturdy frames designed to endure the rigors of international travel.
Thanks are also owed to the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and to the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy of the United States in Kabul. The idea of an exhibit about early U.S.-Afghan relations was envisioned by Ambassador Francis Ricciardone. His investment in its success continued after Meridian International Center assumed direction of the project. Our efforts were greatly aided by the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.

We hope that In Small Things Remembered will encourage viewers from the United States and Afghanistan to reflect on their shared past. Audiences will learn about the many projects that were great successes and ponder how other endeavors might have been approached differently today. After sifting through thousands of images, hearing the accounts of those who experienced events firsthand, and reading widely on the subject, we discovered a fundamental truth: when Americans and Afghans work together toward a shared goal and value our respective cultures, there is little we cannot achieve. This exhibition is dedicated not only to those who collaborated in the 20th century to ensure a self-sufficient and prosperous Afghanistan, but also to the young people in both countries who may otherwise never hear these stories. They have been charged with building the Afghanistan of the 21st century.

Dr. Curtis N. Sandberg
Vice President for the Arts
Meridian International Center
Washington, D.C.