By Dr Asma Ibrahim

05 September 2016 - 13:28

Coin from the State Bank of Pakistan
'We have coins from 600 B.C. all the way to today, without a single period left out.' Photo ©

State Bank of Pakistan.

We interviewed Dr Asma Ibrahim, director of the Museum and Art Gallery Department at the State Bank of Pakistan, about some of the greatest risks to heritage, and her role in its preservation, among other things.

What is the museum?

It's the first monetary museum in Pakistan. It is designed to educate and inform visitors about Pakistan’s banking history, as well as the origin and role of its state bank.

What does the director's job involve?

I joined the State Bank of Pakistan in 2006 to establish its museum and art gallery. At the time, the bank did not have any collections, apart from some paintings by famous Pakistani artists, which were scattered in its different branches all over Pakistan.

When I first joined, there was little professional infrastructure. The bank originally wanted a small-scale numismatics museum - a museum displaying coins and money. But my experience told me to be more ambitious. Nobody would come to a small museum in a high-security area such as a bank. So in 2007, I took over the building, hired and trained interns, and acquired a collection of objects to exhibit. We expanded the original plan for the museum and added an art gallery with works by world-renowned Pakistani artists. We also opened a lab, a souvenir shop (including a team to produce replicas and models of the museum objects), a small library, and a publishing branch.

Once the museum opened in July 2011, my attention turned to its overall administration and management. This included acquiring new objects and displaying them coherently, so the public would want to learn about the bank's history and Pakistan. I also had to maintain the building and our current collection, forecast budgets, plan for the museum's future and preservation, design training programmes, and recruit and train new staff.

What are some of the museum's most-prized items?

We specialise in the history of the subcontinent's monetary systems from the earliest coinage (around 600 B.C.) and the earliest paper money up to polymer notes, and the evolution of stamps and their use. Our coin display is unique, because there are no chronological gaps – we have coins from 600 B.C. all the way to today, without a single period left out.

The museum building was constructed in the 1920s by the British government, most probably for the Imperial Bank of India. It is a Greco-Roman construction in Jodhpuri red sandstone. The building has unique features, including a beautiful glass ceiling, which is a work of art in itself.

Can you tell us a bit about your work with other museums and what you consult them on?

When the state bank museum opened, a lot of people representing small private institutions realised that there were possibilities for smaller organisations to have their own museums. They hadn't realised this before – they thought that only the government could establish museums.

Soon after the inauguration, Oxford University Press Karachi asked me to help them establish their museum and archives. Then, I received calls to do the same for the Sindh police museum, and the Mukhi House museum in Hyderabad, Sindh. Today, those museums are ready to receive visitors or are near completion. I advise them on a complimentary basis.

How does your consultancy work?

The institutions usually discuss with me what they want to show. For example, the Oxford University Press (OUP) museum wanted to concentrate on the beginnings of OUP in Pakistan, but I advised them to start with the history of printing in South Asia, to give the visitors the necessary context. The proposal was to start from the very beginning of calligraphy in South Asia; show the history of handwritten and ornamented manuscripts, handwriting and ornamentation techniques; then, the changes brought about by the British and machine printing; and finally, the role of the OUP and how it revolutionised printing and publishing.

Visitors are more likely to understand and cherish what's before them if they have the whole background. The proposal was accepted by OUP in the UK and Karachi, but at the end when the museum was near completion, the Karachi administration backed out.

What's the greatest risk to heritage in Pakistan, in your view?

Ignorance. When people don’t know what cultural heritage they have before them, there's no barrier to destroying it or even leaving it to be destroyed.

There are no official plans to train people in this area in Pakistan, or to build heritage institutions. We need to have more heritage jobs, and we need to train the younger generation to do them. If there are no jobs in this area, no-one will want to study the subject. The issue is obviously complex and difficult, but we need to tackle it if we want to avoid losing the heritage we have.

What drew you to heritage?

I graduated in microbiology, zoology, and chemistry from Karachi University. We studied everything from invertebrates to vertebrates, up to the evolution of man, which our teachers kept quiet about for religious reasons. I wanted to learn more about it, however, so I looked for a subject that would allow me to solve the mystery. Archaeology was the solution, but there was and still is no archaeology department at my university. To study it, you had to take general history first, then take archaeology as an option in your second year. So that's what I did.

I received a gold medal for my studies at master's level, and applied for a job in the Pakistani government's Department of Archaeology and Museums, where I thought I could go on excavations and discover human remains. But to my surprise, there was no room for a woman to join the department. I waited, got in as an assistant curator on a temporary basis, but then had to leave once the term was over.

I then applied for some other roles and was selected thanks to my qualifications. They posted me in the department's exploration and excavation branch, which was meant as a punishment. It was a man’s world, and because I was a woman, they would not allow me to go on excavations, until my family sent a letter absolving the department from responsibility if anything happened to me. My first excavations were with a French team, headed by a woman archaeologist.

I had achieved my dream, but because my dream did not fit into social expectations for a woman in the early 1990s, there were problems. I had to sacrifice the chance to have a family, for example. Working at the department for more than 16 years made me realise what had to be done, how much attention our heritage needed, and how little we're prepared to protect it.

With a colleague and another friend, I established a non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Centre for Archaeological and Environmental Research. The centre has a conservation laboratory, a library, and a documentation cell, where archivists document our heritage with the help of photography, videos and drawings. It also trains people in Pakistani arts and crafts that are in danger of dying out.

The training put us in touch with many artisans from inside Sindh and Balochistan, who were struggling to earn a livelihood. This led me to establish a foundation and buy a shop in a wealthy area of Karachi, through which I could sell these artisans' work and help them. The foundation is named after my late parents, who sponsored poor artisans and commissioned their work for sale.

What advice would you give to younger people in Pakistan who might be interested in following in your footsteps?

I have been trying to convince girls to come into this field, but our cultural limitations often prevent girls from joining. They may be interested until they are students, but I have not seen anyone in Sindh take up practical archaeology as a profession.

I am worried that those who will inherit what we and others before us have created – the museums, the centre, the NGO, several projects complete and incomplete – won't be ready or able to take the initiative to look after them and build on our work.

If you have a passion for heritage and archaeology, don't let anything stop you. Financial or institutional reward will come sooner or later, but don't make that your prime motivation. Also, don't wait for authorities to take the initiative, and don't blame them if they don't. We should do whatever our resources allow us to do, no matter how limited.

What would you recommend visitors to Pakistan should experience?

Pakistan has a rich cultural heritage, from the Stone Age and the earliest civilisations on Earth, via the first settlements at Mehrgarh in Balochistan, until today. One can easily trace the evolution of civilisation while visiting Pakistan and enjoying the beauty of its landscape. There are signs of great civilisations, although not well kept, on the banks of the Indus river. The river is one of the most ancient in Pakistan. Some of the oldest civilisations flourished in the Indus valley, and there are innumerable archaeological sites, not only above the ground but also underwater, in the delta that spills out into the Indian ocean. I discovered one such site, which was not mentioned in any history books.

Unfortunately, there is no underwater archaeology in Pakistan, and these sites are deteriorating fast. As the head of a Pakistani team, I have been excavating at one of the sites of the Indus delta for the last five years, along with Italian and French archaeological teams. The site is a fortress and is known as Banbhore, dating from the first century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.

Dr Ibrahim was part of a panel at the International Heritage and Museums Conference in Lahore, Pakistan, organised in collaboration with the British Council on 1-3 September 2016.

UK organisations can currently apply for grants available through the Cultural Protection Fund to carry out projects in a series of countries.

You might also be interested in: