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The lament of a heritage manager in Pakistan

Updated June 12, 2017

If I'm being honest, the phrase “I am a heritage manager” that I have been introducing myself with for the three years I've lived in Pakistan after graduating has been consistently interpreted as “I can read and write in English”. I wish I was exaggerating.

The problem of working in the field of heritage in Pakistan – or, more specifically, the irrelevance here of a Masters in Cultural Heritage Studies and Managing Archaeological Sites – is so startlingly simple, it requires a 1000+ word explanation.

It all began one stormy night when there was negligible understanding of the merits of the humanities and social sciences in the local education system.

Thus ensued zero critical engagement with the objects, processes and environments that constitute our daily lives and the reduction of this paraphernalia of our existence to its functionality, commercial value and nothing more.

The gaping hole, where a collective cultural/historical consciousness should have developed by now, was then exploited by the select few who did get a chance to peer around the curtain into 'civilised society'.

Descend, they did, with all their knowledge gleaned from two brisk rounds of the museums in South Kensington and half a bus tour of Rome, into the barren plains of Pakistani ineptitude – on which they would build a shrine to a musealised slice of Marie Antoinette's cake, and then scoff at the public who didn't know what it was.

Despite the readily available support of international NGOs, potentially groundbreaking conservation and tourism development is being bottle-necked by ownership, administrative control and bureaucratic politics.

Needless to say, it has been a long three years. I wanted to open by blowing off some steam because underneath all the Anglophilia, antiquated bureaucracy and dregs of a colonial mindset, Pakistan's heritage is on the precipice of such a bright future.

Not only does the Indus desperately heave its silt each year to protect acres of untapped Bronze Age archaeology, but we're also standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world in the digital documentation of some of our key monuments that are miraculously still standing.

World-class, carefully conceptualised museums are in the works. Not to mention that slapping a #heritage onto your Instagram post will really cash in the hearts and likes. It's amazing what having social media on your side can do for a niche profession.

We are pressing forward despite the challenges, but it doesn't hurt to know one's enemy, so I will enumerate some of these challenges based on my still brief, but nonetheless diverse experience in the field.

Related: Abandoned city: Why Mohenjodaro's heritage risks extinction

It may be useful to start with the heritage of Pakistan's heritage management system itself. While I will leave the (extremely useful) history lesson on heritage legislation in Pakistan to Dr. Rafique Mughal, it is important to note that the first piece of legislation protecting heritage in the Indian Subcontinent was the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 (AMP).

This was enforced, of course, by the British Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that was looking to finally gain administrative control over the archives worth the reconnaissance work it had carried out under the guise of archaeological exploration.

Like countless other government institutions, the post-Partition Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums stepped blindly into the oversized shoes of the ASI, the legal remit of which only bothered to extend to the acquisition, right of access, and 'assumed guardianship' of heritage sites.

Museums are trying to be art galleries, thereby trading in their core function as centres of generational interaction, critical engagement and learning for an attractive display designed for passive appreciation.

To make a long story short, merely domesticating the AMP (and let's be real, it really hasn't changed much since) meant that the prime focus of the only Federal heritage body was administrative control and ownership of Pakistan's heritage sites – not their conservation, interpretation, and certainly not the exploration of their research potential. And thus, the Zero Critical Engagement policy was born.

I'm only this acerbic because I can so clearly see how that one mistake set such a strong precedent for the bureaucracy that spawned around these government departments.

Despite the readily available support of international NGOs like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, despite the strong and successful public-private partnerships these NGOs have formed with government bodies like the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), potentially groundbreaking conservation and tourism development is being bottle-necked by ownership, administrative control and bureaucratic politics.

The Shahi Hammam, a bath dating back to the 1630s in the tradition of the Turkish and Persian style, went under restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. — Photo: White Star.
The Shahi Hammam, a bath dating back to the 1630s in the tradition of the Turkish and Persian style, went under restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. — Photo: White Star.

Here, let us wipe our tears with the consolation that while heritage protection in Pakistan slowly began to resemble a period reenactment of the British Raj, the contemporary art scene was progressing in leaps and bounds.

With the refinement of Pakistani art came the refinement of the Pakistani art gallery, as did growing respect for the associated discipline of art curation. Meanwhile, museums belatedly took inspiration from these swanky, white-box galleries, and began arranging their displays to allow each object to claim a little more space and attention for itself.

However, while the proliferation of stunning contemporary art galleries grew organically out of a deepening public engagement with art, this recent attempt of museums to emulate the art gallery aesthetic is not symptomatic of a growing historical consciousness, nor a mass desire to engage with historical artefacts – these are just museums trying to be art galleries, thereby trading in their core function as centres of generational interaction, critical engagement and learning for an attractive display designed for passive appreciation.

As long as our museums confine themselves to being pretty collections of old things, clumsily taxonomised by chronology or geographical origin, we will not learn to make new connections, ask new questions or discover new things about our past and its relics. The museum then serves little purpose other than being a glorified store, or the cabinet of curiosities of a rich old man.

Read next: Karachi has lost most of its heritage: Habib Fida Ali

The last challenge I am going to present is one on which the winds of change blow strongest. Thus far, heritage and museum management – a dynamic and multidisciplinary field – has been looked after either officially by a government department of archaeology (consisting of bureaucrats and archaeologists), or privately by exclusive and isolated groups of architects and self-professed museum experts.

These efforts have naturally been very unilateral and therefore incomplete; holistic and sustainable decisions for heritage conservation and management can only be made with the collaboration of an archaeologist with a historian, social scientist, curator, architect, engineer, specialist conservator, chemist and even – in the case of glazed tile conservation in Lahore – a microbiologist.

Museums are schools, objects are teachers and dusty archives are libraries – use and appreciate them for what they have to offer, and encourage and support those who are trying to restore this status quo.

Since 2007, the conservation and rehabilitation work being carried out in the Walled City of Lahore has been increasingly mindful of the multidimensionality of the field.

In addition to architects, engineers and socio-economic analysts, specialist consultants from the aforementioned fields are engaged as and when the need arises, who are brought together on site to solve complex issues of material testing, microbial activity, structural stability etc as a team rather than in outsourced isolation.

Scaffolding poles cover a portion of the Shahi Hammam, located near the Delhi Gate in the walled city, Lahore. The Hamman was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.—Arif Ali / White Star.
Scaffolding poles cover a portion of the Shahi Hammam, located near the Delhi Gate in the walled city, Lahore. The Hamman was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.—Arif Ali / White Star.

The same is true for recent activities in museum design and management. The conceptual plan for a new museum in the Lahore Fort is being prepared from a thorough assessment of the target audience, and with the primary aim of harnessing the UNESCO World Heritage Site for its educational potential.

Just the preparatory work entails socio-economic surveys, object cataloguing, digitisation and handling, archival research – each a field in and of itself.

Overall, we can see that visitor experience, effective communication design and factual accuracy are quickly becoming top priorities for the organisations leading such projects in Pakistan.

Things are definitely moving forward, and the future holds exciting promises.

Explore: Of heritage & development

So upon this long exposition, I urge two things. Firstly, to those who manage or profess to manage heritage in Pakistan: I am not asking for you all to be on the same page, but for you to acknowledge that you are all vital chapters of the same book. Competition is fruitless and a waste of your time and expertise – share information, work together and innovate so that some net progress can be made in the field.

And to you – the passive peruser of heritage and all its trappings – please demand more from your museums. It is your active engagement with, analysis of and demand for a more thorough heritage experience that will spur the authorities into action, or at least drag our cabinets of random curiosities into the 21st century.

Museums are schools, objects are teachers and dusty archives are libraries – use and appreciate them for what they have to offer, and encourage and support those who are trying to restore this status quo.