Reflect and Respond: Understanding Lived History Through the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum

by Lina Bhatti, Kera Collective

As an emerging museum evaluator and someone who has an academically-inclined interest, I always keep an eye out for unique ways to present history and culture. Because of my Master’s degree in Islamic Studies, different understandings of orientalism and cultural theories impacted my thought process.   These are processes that I  think about not only in academic spaces, but frameworks that I hold with me as I navigate the museum and museum evaluation worlds. 

Figure 1: A replica of a folk puppet show inside of the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum in Islamabad, Pakistan this May (Figure 1). The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is affiliated with Lok Virsa, an institution that attempts to preserve and document folk cultures in Pakistan. South Asia is immensely ethno-linguistically diverse.  Modern borders tell little of the people who inhabit the subcontinent. More bluntly, modern borders erase ethno-linguistic variety in exchange for national identities rooted from systems of Western colonialism and imperialism.

The Lok Virsa Museum stands as a museum that attempts to showcase some of the different provinces of Pakistan, and the people who inhabit these provinces. Most of the museum uses a diorama sort of approach, where mannequins are displayed as wearing certain ethnic clothing and jewelry, in a setting that would match where the ethnic group lives. I found the diorama approach insignificant, and moreover, caricaturing. It felt strange to see certain ethnic groups as only living in mountains, deserts, always sporting their traditional jewelry and traditional textiles. So I thought to myself as I wandered the galleries, “How can a museum showcase culture that is still existing in a way that does not ‘otherize’ or ‘objectify’ people?”

Figure 2: The entrance to the Artisan Bazaar at Lok Virsa

To me, this was answered when I stepped outdoors. The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is unique in its structure. The outdoor portion of the museum features an amphitheater, an artisan and craft bazaar, stone and tiled architecture, and ample walking grounds. Where the indoor portion felt quiet and uninvolved, the outdoor portion was lively, even though I was there on a gloomy day in Islamabad. Strolling through the artisan bazaar, I came to see that the Lok Virsa Research Institute and Heritage Museum employs artisans. Some of them were working on frescos, others on wood carving, others on pottery. I felt that what I saw indoors behind glass was vividly told to me through observing the artisans. Many of these artisans are also working in techniques and traditions that have widely been lost due to colonialism and lack of governmental preservation attempts. I spoke to a Kashmiri jeweler, who was also an antique collector. He told me the story of his family and showed me old silver Kashmiri jewelry he had collected over the years. I walked some more along and found a craft bazaar, where local Islamabadi artists were selling their art, everything from paintings of cities in Pakistan and South Asia to little lamps and trinkets (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 3: A painting of a South Asian bazaar scene at the market at Lok Virsa.

Moving forward, I heard the melodious tune of the harmonium. I kept moving to where the harmonium was coming from, and then came across a couple of men who were gearing up to perform. There was one man with the harmonium, who was also singing, and another one with the tabla, a type of drum-set, and one with chimta – a pair of jingle tongs used in South Asian music. They started singing folk songs and qawwali music, a type of South Asian Sufi music. The audience swayed with them, interacted with them, and gave them suggestions as we listened and sang with them for what felt like hours. 

The outdoor portion of the museum is what to me felt like living culture, and lived history. Here was an embrace of the idea that different cultures in Pakistan are alive and persisting. Ethnic and folk cultures persistently exist outside of national identity. Interpreting mannequins, pottery, jewelry, objects, through a glass is not the only way, nor is it the most meaningful way to engage visitors or permeate information. The outdoor portion of Lok Virsa Heritage Museum allowed visitors to connect and engage in the idea of lived culture and lived history. I invite you to consider how Lok Virsa could strengthen the connection between the interior and the lively exterior.

Figure 4: Riyaaz Qawwali performing at the National Gallery of Art

Static dioramas of mannequins and objects caricaturize and otherize members of living communities, portraying culture as unmoving, when in reality, culture is malleable. Culture can change over time–it can be influenced by other cultures around it (which is very reflective of South Asian cultures).There are ways to engage with and show lived traditions that do not box people into a static, stuck-in-time view. With a jeweler connecting jewelry to his story as a refugee to a traditional musician incorporating audience requests, I understood lived culture as the stories of these individual people moving with time and place, rather than a cold, static, unmoving display.

Especially within a Western context, these ideas of engaging with members of communities, employing them to continue their vulnerable crafts, creating opportunities for them, are paths to change our frameworks on how culture should and could be shown. At the National Gallery of Art last year, I attended a performance of Riyaaz Qawwali, a US-based qawwali group. The group sang renditions of famous qawwali songs–from hymns on Mecca to expressions of Sufi enlightenment. Here, in this grand national museum, I heard members of the group explain what qawwali was to the audience, and how for this group, qawwali was a means to connect to those who may not be aware of Sufi music. Composed of members from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, the group showed its audience how this qawwali music can make one feel. I hope to see more museums and cultural institutions engaging with artisans, musicians, and members of the very living communities who are displayed behind the walls of our institutions (Figure 4).

Lina Bhatti is a Project and Communications Coordinator at Kera Collective, a museum evaluation company. Lina is driven by an appreciation for the ways in which humans interact with material culture and storytelling. She is passionate about working with museums from an inclusive perspective, acknowledging the ways in which museums emerged in a world impacted by colonialist and imperialist legacies. Lina holds a Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies, and is particularly interested in feminine folk and spiritual traditions in South Asia.

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