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Austerity or folly?

Updated September 15, 2018

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Although Pakistan boasts grand colonial-era buildings, a rich Mughal heritage and ancient sites dating back thousands of years, decades of official disregard, bureaucratic red tape and a lack of resources have contributed to their neglect.

In effect, then, the government’s proposal to convert Prime Minister House, the governor houses and heritage buildings into cultural and educational institutes and boutique hotels raises some serious concerns about the state’s assessment of cultural preservation.

Tasked with revolutionalising the management of heritage, Minister for Natural History and Literary Division Shafqat Mehmood, unfazed by the enormity of this project, has said the current annual bill of Rs1.15bn earmarked for government buildings would be better spent on building more museums, institutions and parks.

And we would not disagree with this initiative, if only the government were not in a tight financial spot and without adequate funds and expertise to match its plans. Will money for creating new museums and collections to fill spaces be readily available when our national galleries and historically significant monuments survive in abject conditions? Also realistically shouldn’t improving education and healthcare be an immediate funding priority for this government? One wonders if this is a populist measure showcasing a vision of austerity or simply an impractical scheme.

Planning a cultural preservation project on such a grand scale requires ensuring sustainability either through a profit-making model (ticket sales, museums cafés, bookshops, etc) or through building a support system (donations, crowdfunding, private philanthropists, etc).

In recent years, our existing national museums have been so poorly funded that curators are unable to protect valuable collections. Many of our spaces remain derelict — unless funded through public-private partnerships as seen in the case of the Punjab government that, in lieu of state funds, used increasingly innovative ways to raise funds for preserving heritage sites. The conservation of the Mughal-period Shahi Hammam, a public bathhouse in Lahore, that benefited from a partnership between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the government and the World Bank is a case in point.

For now, our cash-strapped government must accept that radical revamps of historical government buildings and their gardens are at best a noble proposition — and if quickly and poorly executed, such plans are unwise, especially without an experienced staff and a generous budget that should come with this kind of a shake-up.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2018