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The Other View

Urumqi, Dushanbe, Lahore – constructed pasts and presents in Urban Museums

Tony Judt in Postwar, when introducing his thoughts on Europe’s ability or inability to deal with it’s past (‘The Varieties of Europe’):

The threat to history in Europe came not from the deliberate distortion of the past for mendacious ends, but for what might at first have seemed a natural adjunct to historical knowledge: nostalgia. The final decades of the century had seen an escalating public fascination with the past as a detached artifact, encapsulating not recent memories but lost memories: history not so much as a source of enlightenment about the present but rather as an illustration of how very different things had once been. History on television – whether narrated or performed; history in theme parks; history in museums [emphasize added]: all empasized not what bound people to the past but everything that seperated them from it.

Judt goes on to discuss how malleable the perception of Europe’s very recent history has been and how there is still a lot to deal with and catch up to – the very last sentence of the book actually is: ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute. This reminded me of three museum visits in recent years which for me all had the purpose of finding out how a country deals with it’s actual past (and present) made obvious by what it had to show of it’s perceived past. These museums – the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Museum in Urumqi, the National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan in Dushanbe and the Lahore Museum in Lahore – have a couple of things in common. Strange photographing policies, from strict prohibition that no one adheres to in Urumqi to extra tickets if you bring your camera in Lahore, are common. There is often a void where artefacts from local history should stand, that today make big money in a Euopean museum, with only one or two amazing relics left behind (the mummy in Urumqi, the Buddha in Dushanbe, the Queen in Lahore …). Among critical Western tourists they are altogether regarded as a sham (least so probably the Lahore Museum). Displays are poorly explained, often no coherence in the overall setup is visible and cultural propaganda is obvious – I find just that to be a good reason to visit these museums and take all your time to walk through it even if the guard already threatens to turn the room’s light off to get you moving.

Urumqi

The museum is most famous for the exhibit for one of the oldest completely preserved mummies in the world. It gives a good overview over the history of Xinjiang and the desert towns of Lop Nor that are today only inaccesible ruins in a nuclear test site. What is most striking here though, is how the curators tried to link this history of human settlement that dates back thousands of years in often inhosbitable environment, to China’s claim that this area ‘always’ has been a part of China. The time line starts with the earliest settlements, which are attributed to nomads, when suddenly from one room to the next, some 4000 years ago everyting suddenly inexcplicably turns Chinese. The exhibit goes on to talk about historical facts deduced from excavations, but let’s you know, that in these rooms you’re dealing with Chinese history, while only the very very distant past somewhere in the sand is left to noone in particular.

Dushanbe

The most prominent piece of the main exhibition is the 14 m long sleeping Buddha – after the Bamiyan statues destroyed, it is the biggest one left in Central Asia. The display I liked best however was in the adjacent Folk Museum. It’s a collection of household items and clothes of the different peoples of the area (the museum in Urumqi has a very similar ‘minorities’ section). In one place it compares the clothes of a Tajik woman 100 years ago, a beautifully embroidered dress and some simple shoes with that of a Tajik woman today – some cheap Satin dress and actual fake Gucci high heels.

Lahore

The Lahore museum is a bit more sophisticated and has better researched displays. Similarly to the Lok Virsa in Islamabad it has a folk section as well – household items are at display with an explanation how stoves look like in Chitral or Balochistan and how the people on Manchar lake live (that later is actually just in Lok Virsa). And just like in Urumqi and Dushanbe, this folk section portrays how very much different the displays have to be judged here in comparison to European national folk museums. While in a European muesum, the household artefacts like cuttlery and hand made clothes, or the display of housing sections are really from the past (at least from the poor rural postwar period), the displays in Lahore and Central Asian museums show customs that are very much part of modern life at least in the rural areas. Judt’s illustration of how very different things had once been is here quite a make believe – while for an ignorant urban Pakistani or foreign tourist these displays may be made to look like to preserve heritage that would otherwise be lost, that heritage is still lived outside the museum’s door, but rather being disregarded in it’s alive form.

Finally, the proximity of the three areas’ histories becomes quite obvious. The spinning wheel in Dushanbe is a charkhea just like in the Punjab, the influence of Budhhist/Gandhara style is obvious in all sculptures and these cities all being more or less (Urumqi and Dushanbe were quite insignificant places until rather recently, but other cities in their vicinity like Qurgan Teppe or Turfan and Kashgar may be substituted) entry points to the passes over the Karakoram/Himalaya/Pamir makes it worthwile to visit these exhibitions and put the different pieces together oneself.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.

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