If a museum is considered to be a window into the rich history of local culture, which plays a crucial role in preserving the past and documenting the present to inspire the future, the country’s lone Ethnological Museum in the port city is failing its purpose.
With ancient and traditional ceremonial objects, ornaments, dresses, masks, musical instruments and other relics of glorious past, this museum is supposed to be a testimony to the country’s diversity.
Despite having potential to become a popular tourist destination, this museum is gradually losing its charm and visitors for poor collections, and lack of proper maintenance.
ituated on Sabdar Ali Road at Agrabad, the museum, displaying lifestyles and heritage of various ethnic groups of Bangladesh and four other countries, was established on 1.30 acres of land in 1964. It opened to public in 1974.
Experts say it can become a tourist attraction if the authorities concerned enrich the collections and take steps to draw tourists. It could also earn huge revenues and become a place of recreational learning for visitors, especially children, they added.
The museum consists four galleries and a hall room, portraying 26 ethnic minority communities of the country and 11 others from four other countries. Around 2,700 exhibits including tools, weapons, ornaments, idols of deities, paintings, photographs, dioramas, and sculptures are being displayed there.
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.
In addition, relics of five groups from Pakistan -- Pathan, Swati, Sindhi, Kafir and Punjabi -- are being displayed. The Indian ethnic communities include Adi, Muria, Mizo and Futtowa. The remaining two come from Australia and Kyrgyzstan.
There are also dioramas depicting various events or a peek into people’s lives -- Chakmas sitting on a “machang” (raised bamboo platform) or Murongs celebrating arrival of a new season.
Despite having such a rich collection, the number of visitors continues to decline. The museum hardly sees 1,500 visitors a month while it was more than double a decade ago, according to museum officials.
“People are getting tired of seeing the same displays again and again,” acting Curator Abu Bakar Siddique told this correspondent recently. “We need to add more attractions,” added Siddique, also a research assistant at the museum.
Nurul Huda, a visitor at the museum, however, contradicted him. “The authorities have to publicise the museum first. Many don’t even know there is an Ethnological Museum. They [authorities] should initiate rigorous campaigning in this regard by involving students and youths.”
During a recent visit, this correspondent saw that most exhibits have become derelict while some were damaged.
Not just the collections, the infrastructure also needs maintenance. Roof plasters at some places were falling off. It can not only damage valuable exhibits, but also hurt visitors.
Prof Nasir Uddin of the anthropology department at Chittagong University said the museum’s infrastructure was not developed properly. “It’s not advanced enough to portray the diversity of culture or race, let alone the country’s history.”
“It looks like as if random samples of some extinct species are kept in this museum. A thorough and intensive study has to be done to upgrade it to global standards,” he opined.
INITIATIVES FELL SHORT
To spruce up the museum, authorities collected 500 new exhibits as part of a project between 2014 and 2017.
Expressing concerns, officials said it will be difficult for them to display those due to the existing space constraint.
Artefacts from other countries were also brought in with an aim to attract more visitors, they said, adding that due to inadequate space they were unable to display those. Even some segments of Berlin Wall were also brought in but could not be displayed till now.
“We’re also facing a manpower shortage,” said the acting curator. He said an extended gallery has to be set up to showcase the new items. “Also, we need to make the exhibitions more visitor-friendly and incorporate detailed information about the displays.”
He also informed that in July 2018, Asaduzzaman Noor, the then minister for cultural affairs, while visiting the museum announced to modernise it. “We haven’t heard anything from the ministry since then,” he said.
Contacted, Dr Md Abu Hena Mostofa Kamal, secretary to the cultural affairs ministry, told The Daily Star on October 24 that they have already taken various short, mid and long-term measures to enrich the country’s museums, including the Ethnological Museum.