Ghost Sightings in the Museum

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Do you believe in ghosts? Have you seen one?

I used to believe that other people saw ghosts, though I hadn’t seen or heard any myself, which is probably a kind of believing. Who am I to say what another person has seen or not seen? It could be a ghost sighting, it could be a hallucination, an illness even. But on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I changed how I thought about seeing ghosts.

As I visited the Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul exhibit from Afghanistan, the art and artifacts pulled from the chaos of war seemed to have brought a host of spirits along with them. This was the summer of 2009.

I became weak and looked for a chair, but the chairs transformed in front of me before I could sit. The chairs looked like they were formed of skeletal men from Kabul, bent and mourning, in a state of decay, leaning over the big art books that lay open on viewing table for visitors. The books were filled with photos of Kabul treasures and of the excavations that unearthed them.

Jewelry displayed in raised glass cases seemed to be obscured by ghosts of women who wore, or would have worn, that gold. Was it stolen from them? The women’s ghosts were inside the cases, trapped in there with the artifacts. I couldn’t look at the artwork without seeing these ghostly, transparent images. They were silent, but their bodies were contorted, moving, hands pressing against the display cases from the inside.

Did they want to escape? Did they want to tell us what exactly had happened when the treasures of Kabul were taken from Afghanistan and exported for us to view around the world?

Did anyone else see them? I still don’t know.

A golden princess crown, delicate, lovely and natural, looked like something from another world. Golden trees ringed the top, with tiny leaves suspended from it, and flowers dangling down loosely. The crown had been removed from a skeleton when excavated from a tomb at the Tillye Teppe archaeological site, not far from Quala-i-Jangi — the place of the first U.S. casualty of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The crown became grotesque to me. It seemed to have the woman, or girl, still beneath it there in the glass exhibition case. The prize of the hidden treasures show, it haunted me. I had to leave the room quickly and go outside for fresh air; the visions, thankfully, stayed with the exhibit.

I don’t know if I imagined them, or if they appeared to me from somewhere else, or if they traveled along with the exhibit, visible to people with a sixth sense. And that’s the thing with ghost sightings, who can say for certain? When we dream, visions are equally confusing but at least we can say, it was only a dream.

I made a quick pencil drawing (inserted above) of what I’d experienced, later when I got back to my apartment. And the scene became a section of my third novel, Brindle 24, when two U.S. veterans talk about the art exhibit and remember their experiences in the war.