It is a place that acts as testimony to the diversity of our country. It is a portfolio of ancient and traditional ceremonial objects, ornaments, dresses, masks, musical instruments and other relics of glorious past. It is a gigantic structure with an impressive collection of the art and artifacts of all ethnic communities of the country. It is a place where visitors will find a group of Chakma people sitting on machang in a room, engrossed in their conversation, while in the next room they might come across a troupe of Murong people performing energetic folk dances to celebrate the arrival of the harvesting season.
One can experience this kind of vibrant diversity while visiting the Ethnological Museum in Chittagong that preserves and exhibits various remnants and information on anthropological, ethnical, and the origins of different communities in the world.
“When I was a student, I remember paying a ticket worth Tk 2 to get admission into the museum,” reminiscences 60 year-old Abdul Gofur. “Back then we used to be amazed with the exhibits that it had. However, at present there is a dire need of updating and enriching the exhibits and the aesthetics of display at the museum. Nothing except for the ticket price has changed since then,” he laughs.
“Having grown up with the internet, we are now exposed to detailed knowledge on anything. Why would we come all the way here if it fails to offer us something more than we already know?” Adnan Alam, his son adds. “Since the area is big, and has the capacity to house much more detailed relics and newer technology, the museum authorities should incorporate them. For example they should deploy a corner featuring movies on the lives of these communities, along with a digital information kiosk or multimedia to help increase the number of visitors.”
Situated on 1.30 acres of land in Agrabad, Chittagong, the museum was established in the early sixties to exhibit the lifestyle of different Pakistani ethnic groups. Later it was reopened to the public in 1974. The four galleries and a hall room depict 26 ethnic minorities of Bangladesh and 11 others from India, Pakistan, Australia and Kyrgyzstan.
Exhibits include outfits, tools, musical instruments, weapons, ornaments, idols of deities, paintings, photographs, dioramas, and sculptures. The Bangladeshi ethnic communities include Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Chak, Tanchangya, Murong, Khumi, Garo, Bawm, Pankho, Lusai, Khyang, Monipuri, Khashia, Oraon, Hajong, Mandai, Dalue, Hodi, Bona, Polia, Koch, Rajbangshi, Santal, Munda and Ho.
It has also has relics of the five groups from Pakistan are Pathan, Swati, Sindhi, Kafir and Punjabi. The Indian ethnic communities include Adi, Muria, Mizo and Futtowa. The remaining two come from Australia and Kyrgyzstan.
Despite being one of the biggest museums in the country and the lone ethnological museum, people hardly know about this institute. “Our attitude is partly responsible to the fact that people don't even know of the existence of the museum,” comments Nurul Kabir, Assistant Professor, Department of Archeology, JahangirNagar University. “We are reluctant to consider any monument a national heritage site unless it is in Dhaka. This museum shares the same status as the national museum of Dhaka, but only because it's not in the capital, many visitors will not consider going there.”
Once swarming with visitors, at present the museum receives not more than a hundred visitors a day, says Uttam Das, Office Assistant of the museum. A local visitor, unwilling to publish his name, informs us that unfortunately 15% of the museum's land is encroached upon by a petrol pump and the rest of the land has fallen into disrepair.
Experts like the visitors, have mostly blamed the lack of updating and modernisation as the main reasons for not attracting enough visitors. “We need to keep in mind that the museum was situated in the Pakistani period, therefore it includes information of many Pakistani ethnicities which might not interest present day Bangladeshis,” Kabir says. “A recent survey showed that 30 percent of the objects and information in the museum needs to be updated. The rest of the artifacts need proper attention and restoration,” he adds, expressing anguish over the neglect of the government in protecting an important heritage site like this.
“We, the board of this museum, have already submitted a project design to the Department of Archaeology (DoA) in April this year to upgrade the museum, including gradually and regularly increasing collectibles, improving display styles and launching a publicity campaign,” states Lovely Yasmin, Assistant Director of the museum committee, with optimism. “The project is yet to receive approval from the Cultural Affairs Ministry.”
Experts believe that the project may cost than Tk 2 crores; once the project is approved, the ministry also has to make sure that the money is utilized in a proper manner. Museum experts, curators and professionals need to be involved in the overall process.
Although the ethnological museum is not among the best-maintained museums in our country, a visit to it is not a complete waste of time. “Since the museum is not getting too many visitors, what if the museum itself goes to people?” asks Kabir. “If we can arrange a few mobile museum tours by arranging a van equipped with some of the artifacts of this museum, which would travel across the country, school students could get a unique interactive experience of getting up close to the lifestyles of different ethnicities of the country. A mobile museum can therefore be instrumental in making this museum popular all over Bangladesh,” he ends.