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‘Heritage Now’ opens at Alhamra: Experts discuss role of museums, identity and language domination

October 22, 2017


Risham Syed, Dr Arifa Syeda, Jasdeep Singh and Dr Tariq Rahman in a session on ‘Heritage and Identity: Windows of Cultural Paradigms’.
Risham Syed, Dr Arifa Syeda, Jasdeep Singh and Dr Tariq Rahman in a session on ‘Heritage and Identity: Windows of Cultural Paradigms’.

LAHORE: Heritage Now, the festival to celebrate the cultural heritage of Pakistan, started here at Alhamra Art Centre on Saturday, offering myriad of attractions for the visitors, including panel discussions, talks, art activities and stalls of traditional merchandise and exhibitions.

While many exciting activities and installations were there on the lawns of Alhamra, panel sessions and talks were held in the halls and galleries.

In one such discussion on “Education, Culture and Youth Engagement”, Johannes Beltz, the deputy director of Museum Rietberg of Zurich, spoke on broad idea of a museum. He thinks a museum should also engage with the community, especially children, to help them familiarise with different cultures. His own museum, he says, invites artists from across the world to hold workshops to engage with the children. Beltz’ staff visit schools and invite them to the museum, also offering workshops for the teachers as well as parents.

Nick Merriman also talked about his own experiences and unorthodox ideas as the director of Manchester Museum, UK, which has tried to engage a wide range of audiences. He says his museum works with the people of all age groups. The museum has facilities for very young children who are dependent on their mothers, old dementia patients, unemployed people, besides those suffering from depression and autism. As a result of such initiatives, the museum attracts a large number of people of different age groups and ethnicity. “Seventy percent of our visitors come in families as we hold activities for the families.”

In contrast to Merriman and Beltz, the Pakistani panel, mostly paid a lip service to their ‘work’. Dr Allah Bakhsh Malik, Secretary, Punjab school education department, in his presentation on the ‘achievements’ of his department for ‘inculcating cultural and heritage values in students and other things like teachers training etc. The presentation that mostly sounded like that of a college student, focused on ‘cultural education in existing curricula, culture in teacher training, challenges and way forward’.

Sajida Vandal talked about a Unesco project, involving four countries, focusing on schools and Abbas Rashid of the Society of Advancement of Education, gave details of a story book project his organisation had done for schoolchildren on historical places.


In a session on Heritage and Identity, moderated by Risham Syed, Dr Tariq Rahman termed language a part of heritage which worked at various levels, saying the language of the power always locked out the language of the poor. Giving an example, he said Prakrit was once a widespread language in this region and Sanskrit, the language of those in power, overpowered it. Later Persian overshadowed the local languages followed by English language.

“The British promoted Urdu and vernacular languages of India. They promoted Bengali and Sindhi languages as well. But they ignored Punjabi,

Pashto and Hindko,” he said. However, Dr Rahman did not give the reasons as to why the British ignored the latter group of languages.

He said despite being ignored by the policy-makers, Punjabi continued to be used as language of “pleasure and intimacy”. He gave example of Punjabi cinema which produced more movies than Urdu cinema, saying Punjabi had got “soft power.”

Dr Rahman said the recent census showed that 72 languages were being spoken in Pakistan. “According to Unesco, 12 languages are dying in Pakistan. The informal reports give the figure as 20.” He bemoaned that language heritage of the country was being ignored.

Jasdeep Singh of the National Army Museum, UK, gave examples from his own museum to show how identity was being wiped out of the heritage objects. Like a dagger which belonged to the last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar had no mention of him (the king) but the name of the officer who obtained it in 1857 from Delhi court.

“The objects obtained from India by the British were not captioned to show who they belonged to but those who had obtained it.” He said now the museum had started identifying the real owners of the objects or those who featured in the objects like pictures.

Dr Arifa Syeda explained the concept of heritage. Answering a question, she said Saudi imperialism had replaced the British imperialism for the people living in Pakistan. She said we could create our own culture based on moral values and aesthetics which we had in abundance in Pakistan if we could get away with ‘Sharia’.


A talk was held in the gallery on “Books as Heritage: the British Council’s Legacy Collection,” moderated by Dr Shaila Bhatti and Saher Sohail. There was an exhibition of vintage books from the collection of British Council’s library from the colonial era.

Replying to a question, historian Dr Yaqoob Bangash underlined the importance of old books, saying they informed us about the people of a certain period. “One of the first books published in Punjab after British occupation of the province in 1849 was of folktales while another was on various accents spoken in Lahore region.” However, a lot of them were focused on revenue and land records, he added.

Bangash made an interesting observation, saying the old books showed that the people of Punjab were very happy after the British occupation started as laws were introduced for the benefit of the public and people were in tears when the Queen died.

Ali Usman Qasmi, another historian on the panel, had a different point of view. He said the books written in colonial era described the situation in India the way the British wanted to see. “There was a great deal of stereotyping of the people who were required to serve the British.” He stressed careful critical reading of the books written in colonial era, saying that gazettes composed by the British rulers portrayed a picture of India which was conflict-ridden and the British brought peace to it.

The first day of Heritage Now started with a session on “Technology and Heritage”. It was moderated by Jazib Zahir of Lums, while the panelists included Quddus Mirza, Suleman Shahid, Sandra Smith from Victoria and Albert Museum, UK, Thomas Laurain and Omar Shiekh of Colourful Heritage, UK.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2017