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A museum for the new age

A timeline of events leading to the Partition and beyond: 1940s – 1960s. Photographs by The Citizens Archive Of Pakistan / National History Museum
The Lahore-based National History Museum is employing cutting-edge technologies including VR and holographic displays to attract visitors, especially from the tech-savvy younger age groups
by Ahmad Raza

Museums show how the past and the present are intricately linked together. By exhibiting material dating back in time, museums provide visitors with information needed to imagine a collective present, as nations or as human species.

The British East India Company’s logo.

Advances in information and telecommunication technologies (ICTs) have provided impetus to this task of museums which have been embracing the latest technology to transform visitors’ experience. While most other museums in Pakistan stick to conventional methods in exhibiting their collections, the Lahore-based National History Museum (NHM) is employing cutting-edge methods to attract visitors, especially from the tech-savvy younger age groups.

Housed in a modest building in the Greater Iqbal Park, the NHM opened its doors to the public in 2018 as a collaborative project of the provincial government of Punjab and the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a not-for-profit organization that documents oral histories of the Indian partition.

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The CAP had amassed an extensive audiovisual archive of oral histories by the time it was approached by the provincial administration to curate the museum. “It was our goal from day one to find a space where our archive could live and interact with the public,” says curator Sophia Balagamwala.

Oral stories about significant events in the subcontinent’s history are accessible through audiovisual aids.

NHM has been conceived based on inspiration drawn from some of the most coveted museums in the world. Over the last eight years, the curatorial team and design researchers at CAP carried out visits to the British Museum, the Albert and Mary Museum and the British Library in London, the Polin Museum of Jewish History in Poland’s capital Warsaw, the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary, known for its collections on fascist and authoritarian regimes of the 20th century as well as the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C.

A dedicated team of experts reviewed technologies employed at these places. These efforts have resulted in a museum that exhibits the nation’s past using immersive and interactive displays.

Upon entering the museum, visitors find themselves in Hall-1 amid several audio-visual displays showcasing key historical events beginning with the British East India Company’s arrival in the Indian Subcontinent to the high point of the freedom struggle in the 1940s. The exhibits feature the Lahore Resolution, the Jinnah-Gandhi talks, the 3rd June Plan and the Indian Independence Act of 1947.

The museum showcases popular cultural artifacts.

All content, including documents, videos and voice overs, have been digitized and translated in Urdu and English languages.

Hall-2 features more audio-visual displays, though here the high politics of statecraft gives way to oral accounts of partition survivors. These accounts come from the hundreds of hours of audio recordings undertaken for the CAP’s Oral History Project.

The hall also contains a video display covering bloody riots during the partition.

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A virtual reality (VR) display set inside a North Pakistan Railways wagon exhibited in Hall-3 lets visitors immerse themselves into the partition journey of a young girl to the then newly formed state of Pakistan.

A visual display of the journey to Pakistan.

“The use of technology has allowed us to bring our museum visitors closer in an emotional manner to the stories of our grandparents and our collective past,” says General Manager of CAP’s Karachi chapter Aniqa Imran.

Students learning about Jinnah-Gandhi talks through an interactive display.

Regarding the section that showcases a coin collection from pre-partition era, she explains that customized applications were designed to enable visitors to study these coins closely. “Visitors can zoom in and study minute details in the collection. The same technology is applied in our Heroes exhibit. Each hero is illustrated in a stylized manner and visitors can read more about them on screens available alongside the exhibits.”

At the “Camera from the Past” booth, digital technology has been used to enable visitors to become photographic part of historic moments. A special digital camera captures their image, places it in historic photos featuring the Quaid and other freedom fighters and prints out a black-and-white photograph for visitors’ personal collections.

A replica of a North Western Railways wagon that was used to transport migrants is on display at the museum.

The inside of the wagon. Through oral accounts and VR animations, visitors are confronted with a close-up of the migration experience.

The hall also features traditional exhibits of the Wagah Railway Station and refugee camps set up in the wake of the partition as well as displays chronicling the formation of the government in the early days of the new state. National civil and military medals have also been showcased here.

The NHM has also showcased popular culture of the country. Hall-4 takes visitors down the memory lane with its displays on the film and music industries. Visitors can choose to listen to classic Pakistani songs or watch clips from popular Pakistani movies.

The history of the country’s sports is showcased in Hall-5.

NHM manager Awais Malik says that a key objective of the museum has been to make history interesting and accessible for everyone.

A gallery showcases busts and portraits of prominent figures of the country and heroes from the Independence Movement.

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The museum joined hands with Vanilla Arcade, a company that deals in extended reality solutions like VR, to set up a holographic display of the Quaid-e-Azam delivering the Lahore resolution speech.

In the coming days, the NHM is planning two new exhibits — one on various constitutions of the country and another on its intellectuals, writers, and poets.

“We wish to see a vibrant museum-going culture in Pakistan and our vision for NHM is aligned with this. At this stage, our efforts are whole-heartedly geared towards having people physically come to see the museum”, says Hiba Ali, Director NHM and General Manager of CAP’s Lahore Chapter. “Mapping of the museum to make the displays available on the Internet would be considered and executed at a later stage of museum development.”

Ahmad Raza is a journalist based in Lahore.

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