Nimra Khan: What piqued your interest in archaeology and motivated you to take it up as a career?
Asma Ibrahim: when I was a student of science, I did my graduation in microbiology, zoology, and chemistry and we studied evolution from unicellular to multicellular, vertebrates to invertebrates. And all of a sudden it stops when you reach chimpanzees. So I was curious about what happens after that and how the human beings evolved from there, but in Pakistan they don’t teach this. So I looked around and I got to know that in Karachi University they teach Archaeology for one year within General History – there is no separate department for it – and I opted for that.
NK: How difficult was it to get into this field, especially as a woman, and what has your professional journey been like?
AI: After graduating from Karachi University there was no job market in this field. The Department of Archaeology did not accept any women so when I applied they told me there was no place for me there. So in the meantime I started working for Far Eastern Publication as editor, and I wrote two course books for children of class 4 and 5, on Social Sciences and Ancient History. Then I started working for Travelog International as editor, for Tribune as sub editor and as a freelancer for Dawn.
During this time there was a post announced in the Department of Archaeology for Assistant Director or Curator by the Federal Public Service Commission, so I applied for that. The Director General who was in the committee wasn’t in my favor, but the Chairman was very impressed with my credentials, and they selected me.
The department didn’t want me there so as a punishment they sent me to the exploration and excavation branch which was like a dungeon. It was a storeroom where all the antiquities and skeletons were kept. I worked there for 4 years and after that I was transferred to the National Museum on and off. So I worked in the department for 17 years, without being promoted.
One of my main objectives was to go on excavations but women were not allowed in the field at that time. Then in 1998 there was a French Mission which was headed by a lady this time and so I approached the Director General and tried my luck again. He agreed but he made me get an authority letter from my mother. After that there was a lot of character assassination and they weren’t ready to accept me. Every day I used to think about quitting, but my passion kept me going.
NK: what is the most interesting project that you’ve worked on?
AI: I think that would be the controversial fake mummy case. That kind of changed my life in a way, because it was widely publicized and talked about all over the world. There was a suspense involved and it was also very high risk, because the smuggler who was involved was a very powerful person and he was very sure that it was real. He bought one mummy for Rs. 17 crore, and there were 3 of them, and he was selling them for profit. He had gotten them from Iran.
The Sindh Police found a way to get a hold of one of them but were at a loss and had no idea what to do with it, so then they called me, as I was curator of the National Museum at the time. I didn’t take them seriously at first but they kept calling so I finally went there and had a look. It had started growing fungus because it wasn’t air conditioned. This happens when it’s a fresh body and not properly preserved.
So then we brought it to the museum and there were journalists coming in from all over the world and it became a huge scandal. A delegation from Iran came in and they wanted to take it because they thought it was real and I tried to convince them that it wasn’t, but no one would listen to me since I was still very junior. So I worked for one year to prove it is a fake through relative dating and scientific analysis, with partial funding from BBC. They brought in a forensic pathologist from England and I worked with him.
So it was proven to be a fake. I knew since the first CT Scan which showed that the typical methods of mummification were not used. The body was from 1996, belonging to a woman who was murdered. There was sodium bicarbonate and sodium chloride stuffed in her mouth and chest. The BBC made a whole documentary on it and they’ve shown everything in that.
NK: What was the experience of setting up the State Bank Museum like? What were some of the challenges you faced?
AI: This was something that gave me an amazing opportunity to set up my own museum from scratch, and to leave a legacy. It was a very good experience; I had a free hand and the State Bank never interfered with my work. The funds were already allocated by the Governor and there was a small scale museum planned in the hallway but I also brought the surrounding rooms into it as galleries. They were planned as offices but the bank never objected.
This was a heritage building, so I had to design the displays keeping in mind that nothing could be demolished or changed, so that was a challenge. So first I did the conservation of the building and then I started acquiring all the collections slowly. I had worked as a curator of coins in the National Museum for a long time so I knew all these private collectors. The State Bank didn’t have any collections when I joined but now we have a very comprehensive collection with all the coins from this area starting from the barter system till ebanking, without leaving out a single year in the middle. So that’s why it’s a very unique museum perhaps in the world and a lot of scholars discuss this in their talks as well.
Then I got a few paintings from Peshawar and a few other places. The collection of Sadequain’s paintings we have in the art gallery were painted specially for the State Bank, but we have a lot of donations from private collections coming in now. Amin Gulgee donated us his calligraphic sculpture, and this huge painting by Zahoor ul Akhlaque was donated by Agha Cowasjee. Adil Salahuddin has donated his entire lifetime collection of stamps.
NK: why do you think numismatics is an important area of study?
AI: the thing about coins is that they are very long lasting, so even today we keep finding these coins that date back centuries, and so they can tell us a lot about geographical history, and the rulers who issued these coins and which places they went to and brought under their rule. Plus they have a legacy as well. When the Greeks left and the Sethians came they were using the same coins with over stamping, and then the Parthians came and used them as well. So you can trace the lineage from the very beginning.
Then they can also tell you about the religion of the rulers and their economic history. If the coins are of pure gold, it tells you that it was a strong ruler. My thesis was on Indo-Greek coins so I discovered around 35 Indo-Greek descendants of Alexander who ruled in Sindh and Baluchistan on the basis of coinage alone because we do not have any written history about them. So all this we can do with coins. But the first thing they tell you is the date; whenever we are digging somewhere and we find a coin we instantly know which era we are dealing with. So there are so many benefits of studying numismatics which a lot of people here don’t realize or understand.
NK: do you think there is a need for more museums in the country?
AI: yes of course. We don’t have anything at the moment. I’ve worked on OUP’s museum and archive on Amina Syed’s request, and also worked with Mukhi House Museum and Thatta Museum. But we have so many things that we can do, you can make a museum for anything. Train museum, sports museum, heritage, culture. We don’t have a Karachi Museum up till now, and we bring this up at every conference. If you don’t have a city museum you don’t have anything. That is how you teach your nation, it’s an indirect educational institution. I was in Brazil and in Rio de Janeiro alone there must be around 3000 museums. What do we have in Karachi? And a lot of them are set up by private institutions with support from the public sector, so our institutions need to get involved. That is why the State Bank Museum is so important, it has set a precedent for other institutions and now they know that it can be done.
NK: What do you think about the lack of state involvement and patronage of museums, especially art and cultural museums, in Pakistan? What more should the government be doing?
AI: I think there is a lot of state funding. The government never says no, but it all depends on the officer, how he utilizes it. This is a totally wrong impression that there is no funding. But I suppose with art museums you can say there is a problem. It is not taken seriously and there is not a lot of awareness about it, so it has not been taken up on a higher level. If the art circle approaches the higher levels of the government then I’m sure the funding will come in. but right now the artists have just started to settle in and communities and organizations have begun to form so it’s a very recent development. Previously it was there, but on a smaller scale and not very widespread. There was only one art institution and very few galleries, now there are a lot more so art activity has increased in recent years. So if someone approaches the government, the funding will come because they never said no to us.
NK: Why do you think studying historical artifacts and preserving culture and heritage is so important for any civilization?
AI: As an archaeologist and a museologist I have very strong opinions on this that we should preserve everything to teach future generations. The human brain is always questioning its origins. It’s in our psychology to question who our parents were and where our grandparents came from and how they lived. To satisfy that curiosity, heritage is very important. If you don’t tell your kids where they come from, they will be lost.
Plus it is very important to learn from history. If every child learns from history then there won’t be any more mistakes. They learn about how things were done before; warfare, the taxation system, how did it evolve, what mistakes are we doing now. If you look at Mohenjo Daro, their architecture and sewerage system was so evolved in 3000 BC, it is amazing. These things make you proud in your history and culture and develop a sense of belonging. Our youth at the moment is very confused, because we are not teaching them about their own heritage.
NK: What was the motivation behind the NGOs that you have formed?
AI: There are so many undiscovered sites, we haven’t explored even 20% of our treasures, and there is a need to properly maintain the ones that we have dug up. There are full-fledged government departments for this but they don’t do enough. So I guess one of the motivations was to fill in that gap. I approached the directors in the department and tried to get things started but they were not interested in putting in the time and effort.
So then we formed the first NGO in 1989, the Sindh Exploration and Adventure Society. Then we felt that we needed a scientific institution where we could do analysis of this material that we used for conservation. So we formed the Centre for Archaeological & Environmental Research, with our own funding. Now we also have a really big documentation center within that where we have documented almost all the sites from Sindh and Baluchistan and made them available there. There is a JSTOR facility and a huge library with more than 30,000 books on archaeology and history. Plus, we have a laboratory where we do material analysis and paper conservation, and a training center for pottery and paper conservation, library cataloging, etc. So this was the aim, to see what we can do from our end.