The Lok Virsa: A Cultural & Educational Repository
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The Lok Virsa: A Cultural & Educational Repository

The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum- The first State Museum of Ethnology located in Islamabad, Pakistan presents the history and existing traditions of the people of Pakistan. The Museum was established for the fundamental purpose of promoting and creating awareness of Pakistan’s culture within Pakistani society. The political instability in the country has weakened regional and national cultural education within Pakistan, but the ‘Lok Virsa’ has through demanding endeavours tried to counter this.

What is a museum? What are the functions of museums? The primary purpose of the museum has been to assemble, preserve, and research the material of cultural, religious, artistic, or scientific significance determined by the mandate of each particular institution with the intention of providing education and enjoyment of the public. In recent times, the educational role of museums has become important. In particular, the museum’s potential in providing enjoyable yet instructive activities in collaboration with its collections and displays has gained eminence. The museum should ideally contribute to education and communication, both which are inter-related and concerned with life-long learning. At the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum, the cultural significance, enlightenment and celebration of Pakistan’s rich heritage are essential to education.

Museums used to be considered cultural store houses for objects but have evolved into active and enjoyable environments for visitors. Museums have an enormous amount of potential to be used as a resource for educating and learning as, …education is a key component in every museum’s raison d’être 1.The factors that make these institutions educational and how they can enhance visitor learning will be studied.

Today’s museums are educational arenas. Museum education converges with social responsibility: the social service that museums, as public institutions, provide is education2. The museum has multi-faceted functions as an organisation to construct identity, represent and highlight heritage and be a domain of social relations for visitors from different backgrounds. The educational value of today’s museum has become about representing the collections in a more practical and interactive manner for visitors to enjoy and make connections with the objects on display.

Since the public is made up of different individuals who have different backgrounds and interests, their approach to the displays and exhibitions will also vary according to their respective individual interpretations. Due to speculations such as this, museum visitors can no longer be regarded as passive receivers but active participants within the museum space. Visitors respond to the message they receive from the museum displays in any way they perceive or where their interests lie. Following this, even if the objects and displays are well designed, there is hardly a guarantee that the message will be accepted or recognised on part of the visitor. Besides objects, displays and exhibitions, the entire space and experience of the museum contributes to the learning agenda of this institution. Shops, workshops, events, talks, lectures, shows and performances are all designed to communicate and educate museum visitors. The holistic approach to museum communication can be seen as follows

 

Figure 1: Holistic Model, 1999

These intentions are as valuable and legitimate as the museum intention to contribute to an increase of knowledge and they are in accord with the museum’s role in society. Besides being educational institutions in their own right, museums also have economic, social and cultural values to uphold. If the museum wants to improve its relationship with its audience it must take the visitors’ and society’s expectations and their various cultural and social backgrounds into consideration as well. As no nation or society could possibly be the same, the museums in each place will also have their own agendas to fulfil, and their own audiences to cater to. The intentions and expectations of both the museum and audience should be taken into account to develop a productive relationship between the two.

Many funding bodies require museums to demonstrate a positive social role provided for public benefit and prove that they are giving the visitor a quality experience. Just preserving objects makes them no more than curiosities, and a museum should ideally be able to implement and increase knowledge. An American survey, ‘Museums for a New Century’, stressed that in a climate of increasing financial accountability it is the museum that has forged strong links with its audience and has a strong tradition of service and relevance, that is surviving the best 3. In this manner, museums are being forced to justify their funding and their actions by adopting intelligible public roles, hence the educational portrayal of the museum becomes increasingly dominant. This system of legitimising the museum’s funding may work for museums which are provided financial resources by their respective governments or funding bodies. Unfortunately, museums such as the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum lack funding not because its requirement for capital is not genuine, but because the government does not provide adequate funds as culture and heritage are not given a high priority.

A question arises whether cultural studies and education play a role at all in the present education system of Pakistan. Certainly at the primary and secondary level of schooling it is non-existent whereas it can be found at the tertiary level. All education systems are formulated on a theory of knowledge that determines the answers to key educational decisions such as what is to be taught, how, to whom and why. What a society learns to respect and value is a product of the education and theory of knowledge it essentially accepts. It is therefore critical for museums to define the epistemology that drives them. In Pakistan there is a unified perspective that religion drives education. There is no room for creative or liberal thinking and this creates an atmosphere where artistic and cultural expressions are not allowed to evolve. This is the point where museums and similar institutions are ideal as they do not deal solely with objects but more importantly with ideas 4. The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum aspires to open up the minds of people, change attitudes and offer multiple perspectives. Since the educational role of museums in the West is understood to include events, collections, displays and workshops, through what means and measures does the Lok Virsa fulfil similar responsibilities?

National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage (NIFTH), popularly known as Lok Virsa, is a specialized institution dealing in research, collection, documentation, preservation and dissemination of Pakistan’s traditional culture. It includes both tangible and intangible heritage.5 In pursuance of its objectives, NIFTH has established the following two national museums of international repute in Islamabad:

Pakistan National Museum of Ethnology (Heritage Museum) depicting living cultural traditions and lifestyles of the people of Pakistan covering all provinces, regions and even remote and far-flung areas, presented through three-dimensional creative manner. of Pakistan. 6

Pakistan Monument Museum – the first thematic museum presenting history, birth and development of Pakistan after emergence in 1947 as a progressive state.7

The meaning of the term museum education practice at this institution is mainly educational programmes and workshops for students. The primary purpose of the museum is to educate and edify present and future generations of Pakistan.8

This policy epitomises that a nation uses its museums to portrays itself anew in each generation. However, as the Museum is a national institution utilisable for the nation of Pakistan, people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are encouraged to visit. Pakistan is a land of great diversity, its artistic traditions are as varied as its geography, culture, languages and people and due to such a range of diverse cultural traditions, the communities within a single region of Pakistan will vary in form, language and content from the other. This multiplicity has lead the Lok Virsa Museum to revise its approaches in representing diverse groups.

Although heritage is a political issue in general and museums are in the midst of such problems, in Pakistan this retardation is extraordinary 9 as political nationalism is the line Pakistan accepted from the inception of its independence and this has caused major problems such as ignorance of culture. Pakistan is still in the process of developing as it gained independence in 1947 from the British rule, but culture is still the most neglected section of the country. This ignorance has caused an immense gap between the young Pakistani generation (the urban dwellers) and their cultural roots. An institution such as the Lok Virsa is a way of making the Pakistani people proud of themselves, they should recognise who they are and where their cultural ancestry lies. By acknowledging the importance of society and the museum audience, and by trying to balance the role of communication with education, the Lok Virsa could attempt to exercise its aspiration to utilise culture for education. Richard Sandell believes that museums can act as catalysts for empowerment in communities10, and one way of doing this is changing the nature of the relationship between the institution and the audience, and in the case of the Lok Virsa the pedagogic content of this establishment will be examined in this section.

The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum exists as an exclusive repository of the history, heritage and living cultural traditions of Pakistan. The main exhibition halls of the museum are thematically arranged under the names: antiquity and continuity, ethnic tribes, thematic exhibitions and artisans at work, ballads and romances, Sufis and shrines, hall of musical heritage, textile and embroidery, jewelry and metal work, hall of architecture and wood work. The Heritage Museum and Lok Virsa have acknowledged their social and educational responsibility as established previously in the mission statement, and have utilised their collections, displays, and pedagogical utensils in an economical and productive manner. Ethnographic museums in the West have started using their ethnological collections in a more educational and social context, for example, the Manchester Museum has a wide range of ethnographic collections from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania and the museum staff lead a wide range of hands-on sessions with educational institutions using these collections 11.The museum audience and visitors represent a varied range of educational levels and learning styles and since the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is built for the people of Pakistan, it is aware of its didactic role intending to benefit different segments of the population. Every museum carries out its educational function in a system peculiar to itself; this depends on its staff, material resources, collections and external pressures.

 

1. The Lok Virsa Compound, 2009

The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum has a covered area of 60,000 square feet featuring exhibition halls making it the largest museum in Pakistan. It is interesting how the Lok Virsa as a whole compound including the Heritage Museum has been designed to look like a historical artefact of Pakistan’s society. One could view it to be somewhat of a ‘contact zone’ which according to Mary Louise Pratt is a “space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other…” 12. Clifford has adapted Pratt’s definition of a contact zone in his culturally historic essay ‘Museums as contact zones’ which suggests ways in which to understand contemporary issues related to the display of indigenous culture.

The Heritage Museum’s galleries house a rare collection of folk arts and ethnological artefacts, each of which has been selected by an expert as a prime example of the unique craftsmanship or tradition it features. Most of the objects at the Heritage Museum are examples of things being used in everyday life by the people of the regions they belong to. Objects such as baskets, crockery, furniture and cooking utensils can be seen as ordinary by the communities to which they belong. The idea of the museum has been inherited by both nations from their respective colonial past, yet the concept of a museum still remains foreign in the minds of a majority of the citizens in both nations. An obstacle which prevents a successful integration of the museum and its role in society in Pakistan is a lack of interest in these institutions.

 

2. Nomadic Tribes of Balochistan, 2004

Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is a promotional organisation and is the only museum which portrays present day Pakistan unlike the archaeological museums which promote the country’s antiquity. In the ‘New Museology’ the museum is viewed as a site which encourages new relations between the museum and communities13 The Heritage Museum follows this line as it does place Pakistan’s communities and tribal areas as its priority. The families and individuals who were invited from different tribal areas and locations in Pakistan to help in making the displays were comfortable in having their lives and experiences being interpreted at the Heritage Museum.

4. Rural Women of Pakistan, 2004
5. Potohar, 2004

The collections are arranged in accordance with the requirements of a historicism spanning from the Gandhara and Moenjodaro eras to the independence of Pakistan. Dioramas are displayed on the principle of representativeness and possible educative factors depending on the visitor, although there is an idea of restoring patriotic feelings amongst the local visitors as well. No interaction between the viewer and displays is allowed except for looking. Instructions and the feeling of being watched constantly could hinder the visitor’s ability to learn and could potentially alienate a significant number of visitors as well. Understanding and making sense of what one sees in a museum is vital in being able to gain knowledge in such an environment. Didactic exhibits are meant to make the museum experience understandable and interesting for visitors, but there are factors in the Virsa museum which hinder this, for example, most of the images and explanations on the walls and panels show no link with the exhibits. This could result in an unfortunate mishap of miscommunication and criticism from the educated audience.

Text panels and labels are traditional ways of providing the background to a museum display, and although the objects must be allowed to speak for themselves, the text is supposed to connect them not with just a theme of a display but also with the viewer’s experience Instead, the text did not convey any relevant information information to the broader public. Similar issues of ‘where’, ‘what material’ and absence of makers and users comes into place which can be counter-productive in educating visitors about these objects and dioramas. The objective of supporting text is to connect objects with the context of the display but the carelessness with which it has been positioned removes its functionality. Objects and displays must essentially be presented in a coherent and informative context keeping their educational purpose in mind. The linguistic framework of the text panels and labels as well as the framework within which objects are placed reflect the ideology and discourse of the displays. Correct usage and formatting of text labels could improve the Heritage Museum’s educational provision as well.

6. Quaid’s House, 2004

The dioramas could communicate with the visitors and although objects in an ethnographic museum are culturally interesting they lack interpretive and textual significance in the Heritage Museum. Exhibitions, displays and dioramas need to be arranged in a manner for the museum visitor to participate in a multi-sensory experience. In this way visual awareness develops through the object or display’s colour, form, shape or texture keeping in view the visitor’s personal interests. At the moment, other than giving groups a guided tour and brief
history of the museum, there are hardly any educational programs for the people. The Lok Virsa lacks an adequate number of sophisticated guides to do that at an acceptable level and the deputy director museum has to do this whenever required.14

7. Calligraphy in Tile Mosaic, 2004

In all these displays the objects are endowed with importance because they represent a form of cultural value. Interaction with these displays could encourage and facilitate open-ended learning outcomes through activities and experiences that the visitors bring with them. Museum visitors are not passive recipients and there are a variety of ways in which museums can express their guiding assumptions and bring them to the attention of the visitors. The entire Museum can be used as a learning environment where visitors especially students should be inspired to observe and take part in activities such as sketching and be encouraged to ask questions for discussions.

The only way for Lok Virsa to grow is through education, hence if more educational activities are organised using the dioramas and objects, the Museum’s potential to cultivate knowledge would increase. Granting that the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum does not have an education department to facilitate active learning through object handling and social discussions, it can still maximise its educational potential by including both formal and informal education activities for museum visitors. The administration can achive this through workshop sessions, lectures, out-reach programmes, art and craft demonstrations, financial support for upcoming scholars and leisure activities for students, families and other interested individuals.

Bibliography

Ambrose, Timothy. Education in Museums and Museums in Education, Scottish Museum Council,  HSMO, 1987.
Falk, John & Dierking, Lynn, The Museum Experience, Washington D.C.: Whalesback Books, 1992.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and their Visitors, London: Routledge, 1994.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. The Educational Role of the Museum, London: Routledge, 1999.
Lidchi, Henrietta. ‘The poetics and politics of exhibiting other cultures’ in Hall, Stuart (ed) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, London: Sage Publications, 1997.
Lok Virsa. https://lokvirsa.org.pk/, 2021.
MacDonald, Sharon. A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
Pearce, Susan. Museums and the Appropriation of Culture, London: Athlone Press, 1994.
Rahman, Tariq, Language and Politics in Pakistan, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Sandell, Richard, (ed.) Museums, Society, Inequality, London: Routledge, 2002.
Simpson, Moira,  Making Representations: museums in the post-colonial era, London:  Routledge, 1996.
Vergo, Peter. (ed.) The New Museology, London: Reaktion, 1989.

Image References

Figure 1: Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean, The Educational Role of the Museum, London: Routledge, 1999, p.40
Image 1:  Khan Ikramullah, Shireen. Lok Virsa Compound, 2009. Courtesy the Author
Image 2: Lok Virsa, Nomadic Tribes of Balochistan, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa
Image 3: Title Image: Lok Virsa, Living Mohenjodaro, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa
Image 4: Lok Virsa, Rural Women of Pakistan, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa
Image 5: Lok Virsa, Potohar, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa
Image 6: Lok Virsa, Quaid’s House, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa
Image 7: Lok Virsa, Calligraphy in Tile Mosaic, 2004. Copyright & Courtesy the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa

Endnotes

  1. Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean, Museums and their Visitors, London: Routledge, 1994, p.8
  2. MacDonald, Sharon, A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006
  3. Ambrose, Timothy, Education in Museums and Museums in Education, Scottish Museum Council, HSMO, 1987, p.40
  4. Lidchi, Henrietta, ‘The poetics and politics of exhibiting other cultures’ in Hall, Stuart (ed) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, London: Sage Publications, 1997, p.160
  5. Anwaar-ul-Haq. Director (Museums) National Institute of Folk & Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa, “Writing on the LokVirsa for the Karachi Collective.” Received by Shireen Ikramullah Khan, 26 March 2021. Email Interview.
  6. Anwaar-ul-Haq. Director (Museums) National Institute of Folk & Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa, “Writing on the LokVirsa for the Karachi Collective.” Received by Shireen Ikramullah Khan, 26 March 2021. Email Interview.
  7. Anwaar-ul-Haq. Director (Museums) National Institute of Folk & Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa, “Writing on the LokVirsa for the Karachi Collective.” Received by Shireen Ikramullah Khan, 26 March 2021. Email Interview.
  8. Lok Virsa. Museum Education Services and Expansion of Public Facilities for National Museum of Ethnology, Islamabad, January, Pakistan: Lok Virsa, 2005
  9. Dar, Dr. Saifur Rahman. Museology and Museum Problems in Pakistan, Lahore: Lahore Museum, 1981, p.13
  10. Sandell, Richard (ed.). Museums, Society, Inequality, London: Routledge, 2002
  11. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures. The University of Manchester. http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/collection/livingcultures/accessed on 12th April.2021
  12. Clifford, James. Routes: travel and translation in the late 20th century, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997, p.192
  13. Witcomb, Andrea.  Re-imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum, New York: Routledge, 2003, p.79 – 101
  14. Talha Ali Kushvaha. Executive Director (Museums) National Institute of Folk & Traditional Heritage, Lok Virsa, “Writing on the LokVirsa for the Karachi Collective.” Received by Shireen Ikramullah Khan, 13th April 2021. Email Interview.

Shireen Ikramullah Khan is a Pakistani artist, art critic, educator and museologist with a background in painting and printmaking. She completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2006. In 2009, she completed her Masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from The University of Manchester, which included an internship at the Manchester Museum to profile gallery visitors and assess improvements. She is an active member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and writer for several art publications worldwide. Based in Europe since 2017, Shireen continues to maintain her own visual art practice, participating in several exhibitions across Pakistan and other countries. She is, in parallel, working with international artists to curate shows in Pakistan as a means of building stronger bridges for sharing of culture and knowledge.

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