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While the soul lies in ruins

March 09, 2012

Having visited renowned, ritzy museums across Europe, the National Museum of Pakistan came across, at first, as a misnomer of sorts.

The gate and ticket booth. -Photo by author

The external compound was full of yellowing grass and lonely trees, and was virtually empty of visitors.

A student practicing trigonometry in the garden. -Photo by author

The building itself was lit solely by sunlight from open windows and doors, resulting in a shadow-cast look of abandonment. The fans spun labouriously on the ceilings. That day, the “visitors” consisted entirely of me, a boy, his father, and two little girls.

Stairs leading up to the galleries. -Photo by author

A lone fan spins in one of the galleries. -Photo by author

The broken lift. -Photo by author

But beneath the outward appearance of neglect, the museum retains a quiet but genuine charm. The first employee I met was Abdul Rahman, a cleaning attendant who has kept the display glasses clear and the floors clean every morning for years.

Abdul Rahman, an attendant at the museum. -Photo by author

When I asked which gallery I should visit first, he launched into an enthusiastic report on all 11 galleries in his halting English (and occasional Urdu).

“We have a zig-zag gallery with the very very beautiful Qurans. And a coin gallery with the very very old coins …”

The museum windows are reflected off the display glass of an exhibit. -Photo by author

And fascinating exhibits they were, beautifully preserved within that derelict shell of a building. To maintain the conditions of these ancient curios, dedicated expertise is required, and people who value deeply the preservation of culture exist somewhere in this rickety gloom.

Fortunately I had the chance to meet some of the people responsible for keeping the core of the museum alive. Anwar Hussain Khan is the resident replica modeller, with his own cozy workshop in one of the dimly lit corners of the building.

A row of replicas in the modelling workshop. -Photo by author

Anwar Hussain Khan at his desk in the workshop. -Photo by author

The modelling workshop. -Photo by author

For the past 20 years, he has worked in the museum, and there is no place else he would rather be.

“I am happy to stay here. The museum gives me full support and promotes my work,” he said, and proceeded to give a breakdown on the intricacies of mould making. He specialises in oriental art, and has created replicas of everything from the Mohenjodaro “Priest-King” to the iconic Bodhisattva head.

The museum has a homely number of 120 employees, many of whom have known each other for years. Nazakat Ali, his father having worked here since his childhood, grew up in this family.

Nazakat Ali, a caretaker at the museum. -Photo by author

Since completing his education at 21, he has worked at the museum as a caretaker for nine years, while his father continues to work under the same roof as a driver. Ali expressed a simple sense of contentment.

“The environment is relaxed and I make friends here. There is noone new and I’m happy in that.”

There is an easy friendship among the employees. Though the day seems to move slower within the museum grounds, they keep to their duties in comfortable silence, with the occasional chit chat.

Nazir Ahmed holding on to prayer beads while watching over the coins gallery. -Photo by author

Two employees enjoying a meal cooked by their wives at lunch break. -Photo by author

Despite the stark sparseness of the place, the museum humbly houses an intriguing assortment of artifacts that kept me engaged for a good few hours. For all its soul and heart, this museum deserves more visitors than just the occasional schoolchildren.

The writer is an intern at