The successful journey of Mohatta Palace Museum

22 Sep 2020

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A VIEW of the museum.—White Star
A VIEW of the museum.—White Star

KARACHI: Mohatta Palace Museum over the years has become one of the finest cultural spaces in Pakistan. It was formally inaugurated on Sept 15, 1999, which means for the last 21 years it has been highlighting and promoting the arts and crafts of Pakistan through its tastefully organised events.

Originally a seaside residence of an affluent Marwari entrepreneur Shiv Rattan Mohatta and designed by Ahmed Hussein Agha in 1927, it was acquired by the government of Pakistan in 1947 where it housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When 17 years later, the Foreign Office shifted to Islamabad, the palace was given to Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah. After her death, her sister Shireen Bai lived here till she breathed her last in 1980. Subsequently, it was purchased by the federal government who handed it over to the Sindh government. It was agreed that the space would be used as a museum of the arts of Pakistan and of the region. A board of trustees was set up to oversee the restoration process of the building and finally, in two phases, the facility opened its doors to the public on Sept 15, 1999.

The museum has hosted over 20 exhibitions on differing aspects of the diverse culture of Pakistan

Talking to Dawn, Nasreen Askari, the director of the museum since its inception, said, “The first exhibition held in 1999 was Treasures of the Talpurs: Collections from the Courts of Sind. We are very proud of where we have come because it may not seem a great deal but we’ve had over 20 exhibitions on differing aspects of the diverse culture in Pakistan. The citizenry of Karachi was delighted with the first show because they had never seen objects like these before. They were sumptuous objects, all kinds of beautiful things that the Talpurs had very generously loaned us.”

On the process of choosing objects to put on view, she said, “What happens is we pick up an aspect — whether it’s a private collection or modern art — and then we tease it out and try to find out where the collection of that particular object or genre is located. Since we’ve had success we are confident when we approach them and they are confident that we will look after their objects.”

What kind of audiences does the museum attract? Ms Askari answered, “We have a very mixed audience. The Talpurs drew in the elite because they are the elite. But slowly and gradually as word spread, families from the middle class came forward. Since the entrance fee is minimal, Rs30, families find it easier to come here.”

As the director said the success of the first show led to further successes because more than two dozen exhibitions ever since have been organised here. They include: The Arts of Calligraphy, The Arts of Gandhara, Rare Maps and Prints, Jewel in the Crown: Karachi under the Raj, Tale of the Tile: Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan and A Flower from Every Meadow. As far as modern art is concerned, the museum has arranged some of the most remarkable displays in recent times. For example, Sadequain: The Holy Sinner, Jamil Naqsh — A Retrospective, Labyrinth of Reflections: the Art of Rashid Rana, Rebel Angel: Asim Butt and The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan.

Mohatta Palace Museum has also branched out into publication, limited to its exhibitions, and several of its books have been sold out and reprinted.

Expressing her hope for the future Ms Askari said, “We live in an era in which museums are no longer treated as repositories of objects but are sites of experience to engage the mind as much as the eye.”

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2020