Initially, museum administrators said only a few worthless items were lost. Then, in an earlier investigation, OCCRP and Kloop found dozens more. New documents show the real number is in the hundreds – and officials are still not talking.
For years, the National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan has drawn a steady stream of visitors curious to take a look at the traditional headdresses, 19th-century carpets and posters of Lenin housed in the modernist Soviet building in downtown Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek.
But after it closed for reconstruction in 2016, the legendary institution turned into a black hole. For five years, hardly anyone – including many staff – had any idea what was going on inside.
And as the renovation dragged on, more and more signs showed that something was wrong.
A fire first broke out in the museum building, which some have attributed to arson. Then the Kyrgyz government suddenly decided to bury a unique mummy from its collection, sparking outrage among archaeologists and the general public. In 2020, a Kyrgyz court convicted the country’s former prime minister of embezzling public funds during renovations.
In May 2021, the OCCRP and its Kyrgyz member center Kloop released an investigation revealing how the government and museum administration had attempted to cover up the destruction in the fire of at least 18 historical carpets from its main collection. But the Kyrgyz authorities ignored the investigation, and a few months later the museum reopened.
It appeared that an important question – whether other elements of the exhibition had also been damaged – would remain unanswered.
But now OCCRP and Kloop can reveal that the scale of the fire’s destruction was far greater than previously reported.
According to two letters sent by the museum to the Ministry of Culture and obtained by reporters, museum workers discovered hundreds of ‘partially and completely burnt objects of museum significance’ while clearing the museum’s basement in July. 2021.
“Seven boxes of burnt museum objects were found in the basement of the museum,” reads a report from the curators attached to one of the letters. “When they were opened, we discovered rooms with identification numbers from the main collection and the auxiliary collection: documents, paintings, books, [Soviet-era] posters, carpets.
“They all burned, and the burned spots were cut out.”
After the discovery, according to the letters, the new administration of the museum organized a special commission which compiled a list of damaged objects. This list, attached to the letters, shows that approximately 350 numbered and cataloged exhibits were damaged or destroyed in the fire. Around 600 other items were also affected.
Many of the lost items dated back to the Soviet era, including the early revolutionary period, but among them were also several books published in the 19th century.
These findings raise the question of whether the damaged objects had been deliberately concealed in order to stifle their destruction.
Reporters obtained the letters from a source involved in museum activities who wished to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing further investigations.
The source said the administration had been dishonest for years. “Since 2016, [the previous administrators] been lying for five years that everything is fine,” the source said. “And now we find out that’s just not the case.”
The Ministry of Culture is aware of the damaged exhibits, the source said. He did not release any information about them to the public.
The head of the museum at the time of the fire, Anarkul Isiralieva, no longer holds a management position, but still works for the institution. She did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Reporters have contacted several members of the museum administration, but all of them either did not respond at the time of publication or declined to comment for this story. The Ministry of Culture also did not provide an answer.
A surprising discovery
Among the information in the two letters and their attachments is how the damaged items were discovered. They say museum workers discovered the burnt artifacts in the basement of the building during a cleanup.
The source credits the museum’s current acting director, Gulbara Abdykalykova, with discovering the burnt artifacts. “She pushed and pushed [for the basement to be cleaned] and, finally, the workers discovered a storage space that the previous administration had hidden behind cabinets,” the source said.
In this enclosed space, they found nearly 900 burnt objects. Of these, about 350 had identification numbers that clearly indicated that they belonged to the museum’s collections.
Many of the remaining objects also appeared to be museum exhibits, but because they were not properly labeled – their labels had been burned in the fire, removed, or never affixed in the first place – it is impossible to determine how many between them were of historic value.
“According to a preliminary assessment, the objects belong to the main, auxiliary, reference, commemorative and gift collections of the museum,” read one of the letters.
The 350 damaged objects with identification codes include four carpets, around 300 photos and documents, and 40 historical signs and posters. Other items include books, magazines, papers and documents, as well as four traditional Kyrgyz carpets. Journalists were unable to assess their value.
Since the fire broke out in the museum’s lecture hall on July 22, 2016, it’s been nearly impossible to get a clear answer, either from the museum or the government, about what really happened. this night.
Following the fire, the Kyrgyz government issued a press release assuring the public that no exhibits had been damaged. According to the authorities, the fire broke out in a storage room adjoining the conference room where valuables were stored.
However, a few days later, Isiralieva, the museum’s director at the time, told a local newspaper that one item in the exhibit did indeed burn during the fire: an old yurt that was already to be disused. The rest of the museum’s exhibits were removed from the premises before the reconstruction and were stored in a secret vault, Isiralieva said.
For five years, the official narrative that the exhibits were safe and sound in secret storage seemed true. But then OCCRP and Kloop obtained internal museum documents proving it wasn’t just the yurt: 18 rugs from the main collection and a number of felt items, including examples of traditional Kyrgyz flooring known as shyrdak, had also been badly damaged.
Documents showed that an interdepartmental commission convened to assess the safety of museum objects after the fire found that the exhibits were dilapidated and of little value.
When OCCRP and Kloop asked the Department of Culture for comment on the previous story, officials offered the same story: Damaged items were decrepit and some had been identified for disposal as early as the 1990s. why they weren’t discarded was that, due to renovations, the museum was unable to conduct a formal inventory.
Taken together, the previous documents suggested that only 24 dilapidated items had been destroyed in the fire, including only five carpets. The documents contained no information to suggest that 350 other exhibits had been damaged or destroyed.
There have also long been indications that this account was not entirely true. According to several museum employees interviewed by OCCRP and Kloop in 2020 and 2021, the rugs were valuable and in good condition, and should never be removed from collections.
Reporters also received documents showing that, contrary to ministry statements, the museum had completed a full inventory in 2013.
Officials have also provided conflicting explanations for where the exhibits were located at the time of the fire.
While Isiralieva claimed that all exhibits had been removed from the museum months before the fire, museum staff and documents from the interdepartmental commission painted a different picture. They suggested that at the time of the fire, the conference hall was being used as a temporary storage space for exhibits. After the fire, some of these pieces were transferred to the basement of the Ministry of Culture, while others were stored at the National Bank.
The exact cause of the fire is still unknown. But a report by forensic experts who investigated at the request of Bishkek police worryingly says the flames came from “an open fire source with the use of combustion accelerators”.
The report noted that the conference room showed signs of “multiple independent fires”, which is typical of the “combustion of spilled flammable liquid”. However, the experts did not reach an unequivocal conclusion on the cause of the fire and the information they gathered was not made public until the OCCRP published its investigation.
Isiralieva also made conflicting statements about the cause of the fire. Last year, she suggested to OCCRP and Kloop that the fire was arson, but later backtracked. She said she only ever cited the forensic report and never meant to say she believed in the arson theory.
In January 2017, police opened a criminal investigation into the fire. The status of this case is unknown. When OCCRP and Kloop were planning their investigation last year, the Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.