The National History Museum is all set to open its doors to the public on July 1st. The first of its kind in Pakistan, the museum relies on interactive digital media and bespoke art installations to bring to life the struggles and winding road that led to the creation of Pakistan.
Located within the premises of the Greater Iqbal Park, the site of the museum overlooks the iconic Minar-e-Pakistan and the majestic Badshahi Masjid in the background.
The museum attempts to present a comprehensive view of Pakistan’s cultural and historical development in such a setting.
The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) secured the opportunity to curate the museum and the depiction of the nation’s struggle for independence and subsequent development, and no one better to do it given that CAP is a non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural and historic preservation.
As you enter the reception hall of the museum, your attention is immediately drawn to an art installation suspended from the ceiling by artist Arshad Farooqi: a number of men’s tattered and weathered shalwar kameezes floating in the air, congregated above a vast staircase descending down to the basement. The installation viscerally reminds you of a sea of tired souls migrating, with grainy footage of the Partition projected upon them.
The Oral History Project “lies at the heart of CAP” as per the official website, and relies on oral testimonies of Pakistanis who lived through significant events (such as the Partition) to build an alternative perspective of our historical narrative. Likewise, the museum uses audio-visual recordings and digital exhibits to portray several significant moments in our history, both from CAP’s archives and others.
In today’s hectic modern world, museums serve an important function of narrating the story of humanity and its survival through the ages. They provide a place where visitors can go to connect with art, culture, and history, and in many ways house the essence and soul of a nation. Though our national identity as Pakistanis was formed almost 71 years ago, up until now there was no museum exclusively dedicated to the historical formation of our country and its cultural development.
Heretofore, the Lahore Museum was the only museum available for public consumption, however it differs significantly from the National History Museum as it does not offer a narrative on our history or cultural development but rather merely houses a number of archaeological materials from pre-historic times to the Hindu-Shahi period. In contrast, the National History Museum offers a digitally enhanced, state-of-the-art insight into our nation’s development.
In the first hall, you encounter a life-size crest of the East India Company, oil paintings by Hameeda Sajjad of the founding fathers, vintage radios blaring speeches from Quaid-e-Azam that are interactive, and battered ropes and wooden crates emblazoned with the words ‘East India Company’ mounted to the walls. There is a sudden clarity to these elements of our history when presented in this manner, astoundingly different than if you read about them in a book.
The Lahore Resolution has its own contained exhibit, with a small-scale replica of Nasreddin Murat Khan’s architectural studio at the time of design of Minar-e-Pakistan suspended in the middle of the room at eye level, whimsical in its artfulness of display yet convincing and realistic in its attention to detail. Further along, visitors encounter a section dedicated to Jinnah and Gandhi, with interactive touch screens using which visitors may peruse letters exchanged between the two men, both in English and Urdu for accessibility.
Hall Two, however, has a distinctly darker mood, delving into 1947’s “fasadaat” (riots). The anguish and violence that accompanied Pakistan’s creation is acutely highlighted here, with a hauntingly immersive sensory experience in near darkness depicting the height of suffering during our forefathers’ struggle for independence via voice recordings of the survivors of 1947 and sounds of rioting and war from that time.
Later on, visitors encounter a train station within which they may board a train carriage replica from the 1940s. Inside, the passengers experience an enhanced reality simulation of an ill-fated train carrying migrants from one side of the border to the other during the Partition.
Walking into the rickety old train coupe, one cannot be prepared for the palpable sadness and turmoil that is expressed in the virtual reality animation. It is moving and unforgettable, placing the viewer in the shoes of migrants who went through hardship and great suffering.
A point to be noted in praise of CAP’s curation of the museum is the inclusion of diverse figures in the movement to build Pakistan, from female figures such as Fatima Ali Jinnah, a bust of whom is displayed in the ‘Heroes’ gallery which celebrates individuals who contributed significantly to the Partition; to GM Syed, a Sindhi nationalist who voted in favour of the establishment of Pakistan in the British Sindh Assembly; and FE Chaudry, a Christian photographer and perhaps Pakistan’s finest, whose images mapped the development of Pakistan from Jinnah’s early days to modern-day country.
Begum Liaquat Ali Khan has inspired an entire exhibit, titled ‘Quwwat-e-Pakistan’ (or the force of Pakistan), as the consort of a Prime Minister who was also one of the pioneering female figures of the Pakistan movement. The museum highlights her role in the creation of the Pakistan Women National Guards, Pakistan Women’s Naval Reserves and All Pakistan Women’s Association. Her tireless efforts for the women and children of Pakistan are celebrated via a digital exhibit showcasing her illustrious career.
Further sections of the museum explore the life of refugees trying to make a new home, and later on the establishment of Pakistan as a complete state with its own government, armed forces and police force (which still operates under power given via the Police Act of 1861).
Pakistan’s cultural evolution is displayed in the markedly more vibrant Hall 4, where bright and colourful interactive exhibits showcase the Lollywood film industry and sports. A lively final exhibit which is kid-friendly, caps off the museum prior to the gift shop, with a delightful ‘Discover Pakistan’ wall as a larger-than-life map of Pakistan which is interactive and reveals highlights from the various regions of our country.
The one thing that may strike a visitor is that further exploration of our cultural and artistic development since 1947 should also be included. Nevertheless, the journey through the museum is indeed a transformative one, with each exhibit delivering unique and memorable experiences that flesh out the historical evolution of our country with the aid of technology and audio-visual testimonies.
The National History Museum successfully achieves its aim of reminding us of the human element to history that is difficult to discern in the existing literature, and will no doubt inspire young and old alike to form their own independent conclusions about the struggle to establish Pakistan.