world museum day
I was mystified by the old remains of an ancient scripture displayed at the National Museum of Pakistan. I was trying to decipher the delicate scribbles when I was suddenly broken from my trance by the commotion behind me. It was a queue of 5th-graders dressed in their school uniforms walking in the path guided by their teacher. As the teacher described the background behind the archaeological pieces in the room, the look of disinterest of the students and the stifled laughs seemed a little familiar… rather reminiscent.
I believe the only time I had ever stepped into a museum was as a part of an educational trip with my school. Whether it was P.A.F Museum or National Museum, almost every year we would groan and mutter an ‘here we go again’ under our breaths because apparently anything else was ‘too fun’ and this was the only ‘appropriate’ place. And while we were at the museums, walking in a queue, listening half-heartedly and looking around, we couldn’t wait for it to be lunch time already. It is a lot to expect a 4th-grader or a 5th-grader to pay attention for long hours, especially when they aren’t in a classroom anymore.
I have always struggled with History as a subject and I realise that it was because my teachers were awfully boring or extremely rude. So, naturally, museums never intrigued me… until my university ended. In my final year we studied a little bit of Pakistan’s past and present, and because our teacher was really good at story-telling, it developed my interest in the subject. After our final exams, our teacher suggested that we take a Karachi tour and visit all the museums and some historical places with the whole batch.
Before that day, I never realised what an incredible treasure trove these places were. For instance, I didn’t know that the National Museum boasts an incredible collection of 58,000 old coins (dating back to 74 Al-Hijra and 550 AD) and well-preserved sculptures. The building was designed specifically to house rare and precious artefacts and manuscripts. The six-story building has eleven galleries and it is the only public museum in Karachi and it continues to facilitate international and local academics in their research. It also shares a glimpse from the lives of people of Indus Valley and Gandhara Civilisation, portraying their creativity and aesthetic sense. It is a site of public and scholarly engagement with history and culture.
Not only are these museums an incomparable place of discovery, they teach us about our past and open our minds to new ideas – two essential steps in building a better future. Through its collections, museums thread a social fabric that is essential in community building. By upholding democratic values and providing life-long learning opportunities to all, they contribute to shaping an informed and engaged civil society.
Unfortunately, we don’t value museums in our culture or history for that matter. That day we visited the National Museum, Quaid’s residency and Quaid-e-Azam's mausoleum. We had Mohatta Palace and Frere Hall on the list too but there wasn’t enough time left for us that day. Wherever we went, the one complaint was constant that there was not much attention and funds for the maintenance of these historical places. There were some places better than the others, but all these museums were absolutely deserted. And the only crowd you might find occasionally would be of some innocent students being dragged from one room to another, without grasping anything that these places had to offer.
Unfortunately, it’s probably just us who don’t value museums as much. While museums are a great tourist attraction, they should be important to us locals as well. I noticed this contrast on my recent trip to the U.S. where museums were not only there to preserve and educate but also to entertain. I was most fascinated by the Carnegie Museums – Architecture, Natural History, Art, etc – and the Science Center. Not only were there important pieces of history on display, there were some interactive exhibits as well, where children (and adults) could learn while having fun. Another one that I experienced at the Cloud Room at the Warhol, which had floating ‘clouds’ and you could play with them. Imagine having something fun like that in Pakistan!
But first, we need to hype our historical landmarks and sites like we would of any other tourist attraction in the North. We could also explore the concept of virtual museum tours that became very popular during lockdowns. Surely, there is nothing like setting foot inside an iconic museum and laying eyes on a world-famous sculpture created by a renowned artist centuries ago, but many people around the world flocked to these digital tours out of curiosity to find out what’s actually in there. Moreover, having a sneak peek into these amazing exhibits can pique your desire to visit them in person one day. Similar things can be done for the incredible museums that we have in Pakistan. Maybe if they had a presence online or if the exhibits and artefacts that displayed there were talked about more, we may also attract many tourists and locals to step into these incredible places.
The tickets to visit museums are really cheap in Pakistan and they can be a very fun experience to explore with your families. Unless we find a way to make things fun, I’m afraid the rich heritage, history and culture that existed for centuries will remain hidden under glass, waiting to be discovered again.
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