Afghanistan Observed: a digital exhibition of prints, drawings and photographs

An exhibition of digital material relating to the history and
culture of Afghanistan


  • British Library (BL)
  • Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Afghanistan
  • British Embassy in Kabul


  • To display 150 high-quality digital copies of sketches, prints, drawings and photographs of Afghanistan that relate to the history and culture of Afghanistan, selected from the British Library’s collections in Kabul and Heart.
  • An accompanying catalogue in English, Dari and Pasto has been distributed to schools and educational establishments nationwide.

Project details

Afghanistan Observed reflects the observations of European visitors to Afghanistan between 1830 and 1920. This was a period during which Afghans’ relations with the outside world was critical not only for the country and region, but for the superpowers at the time.

The exhibition features 150 digital prints of sketches, prints, drawings and photographs that relate to the history and culture of Afghanistan, selected from the British Library’s collections.

Afghanistan has long exerted a powerful attraction over outside observers. While much of this material was produced in the course of generally ill-fated military incursions onto Afghan territory in the nineteenth century, the artists and photographers concerned did not restrict themselves to recording military subjects. They also responded with lively curiosity to the people, landscapes and culture of Afghanistan.

This material represents a unique visual record of Afghanistan’s culture, people and landscapes, little of which is presently available in Afghanistan. At the end of the exhibition, the digital images displayed will be given to the National Archives in Kabul to ensure that this valuable resource for the study of Afghan history and culture is available to future generations of Afghan researchers.

Artists on display
Among the artists represented are:

  • Charles Masson (1800–1853)
    Masson effectively founded the study of archaeology in Afghanistan in the 1830s and whose drawings form the earliest record of many previously unknown sites.
  • James Atkinson (1780–1852)
    Atkinson served as a surgeon in the First Afghan war and who produced a lively series of watercolours, later published as Sketches in Afghaunistan (1842).
  • John Burke (1843–1900)
    Burke was a photographer who accompanied the British forces in the Afghan Campaigns of 1878–80.

Exhibition details

The exhibition was a phenomenal success in Kabul, attracting a record number of 16,500 visitors in its one month run from 26 April to the end of May 2010.

The exhibition opened in Herat on 1 August 2010.

It was curated by John Falconer (BL), in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and with the support of the British Embassy, Kabul.

Image: photograph of Afghanistan by John Burke

Photograph by John Burke (detail). show a large version of this image