Our Cultural Heritage and Museums

Professor Dr. Iftikhar-ul-Awwal
Director General, Bangladesh National Museum
The article was published in The New Nation (Bangladesh), March 5, 2003
It was also published in the Sustainable Development Networking Programme, Bangladesh (SDNP) website:

Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign state in 1971. It has a territory of nearly 56,000 square miles,
and a population of about 140 million. This makes Bangladesh one of the world's most densely
populated areas. Most of the terrain is relatively flat lying in the deltaic plain of Padma-MeghnaJamuna river system. The only significant uplands are in the north-east and south-east of the
country. The land is covered with a vast network of rivers, their tributaries forming a maze of
interconnecting channels. In the southwest lies the Sundarbans, the biggest mangrove forest in
the world with its famed Royal Bengal Tigers.
Bangladesh has a rich cultural heritage dating back to at least fourth century B.C. Over the
centuries, the region had been under the sway of the Imperial Mauryas and Guptas and later
under the Palas, Senas and Chandras who ruled from about the eight century A.D. till the
beginning of the thirteenth century A.D. Muslim ascendancy in the region was then established
by the Sultans and the Mughals. However, in 1757 Muslim rule came to an abrupt end with their
defeat in the Battle of Plassey. After a heroic struggle against British imperialism for nearly two
centuries, Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) gained its independence as province of Pakistan in
1947. Unfortunately, the exploitive policy and domineering posture of West Pakistan soon
compelled its eastern wing to declare a war against its western wing in 1971. The nine months
glorious War of Liberation let to a new country—Bangladesh.
Some glimpses of the country's history and heritage may be discerned from the ruins that remain
scattered over many sites in Bangladesh. Archaeological excavations at Mahasthan, situated about
eight miles north of Bogra town on the bank of Karatoya river, led to the discovery of an ancient
city—Pundranagar or Pundra Vardhana which is often referred to in pre-Muslim inscriptions,
epigraphic records and literary works. The Mauryas possibly founded the city in the third century
B.C. It was the provincial metropolis successively during the rule of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the
Palas and minor known or unknown dynasties. The discovery of punch marked and cast copper
coins point to commercial interactions of the people within the city and with other regions in and
around. Among recovered antiquities are found beautiful buttons, eardrops, nose studs, semiprecious stones, tapestries, terracotta figures and toys, rings, bangles, etc. Here it may be
mentioned that the famed Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited the place between 639 and 645
A.D. and left interesting description of it. A team of French archaeologists is now excavating the
site and we hope to know more about this ancient city, and the life and times of its people in the
days ahead.
On the slope of Lalmai-Mainamati range of hills of Comilla grew up another extensive centre of
Buddhist culture. Discovered during the Second World War, excavations were undertaken by the
Archaeology Department in 1955. These excavations have unearthed valuable historical evidence
about the Buddhist rulers of the 7th and 8th century A.D. They not only built complexes of
shrines, monasteries and temples but also struck gold coins, which suggests to a high state of
economic prosperity and political stability. Another interesting site lies about 60 kilometers
north-west of Mahasthan. Excavations in Paharpur have unearthed possibly the largest known
Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas. Built by the great Pala King Dharma Pala in the
8th century A.D., the Somapuri Vihara is distinguished by its cruciform shape. The Rajshahi
District Gazetteer points that, 'this type of temple architecture from Bangladesh, profoundly
influenced the architectural relief of South East Asia, especially Burma and Java. Among the
finds in the four wings of these monasteries are bronze images, stone sculptures, potteries, jars,

terracotta plaques, cowries, a hoard of Arab coins in a small pottery and drinking cups. Paharpur
is now a part of the World Heritage Site.
The art and architecture that developed during Muslim rule in Bengal were distinctive, and
added new flavour and variety to existing designs. The main contributions herein were the
introduction of arches, domes and vaults, and the necessary use of lime as mortar which was
rarely used in pre-Muslim period except for concreting the floor. They also introduced a rich
variety of surface decoration represented by floral, geometric and rosette designs. The Muslim
rulers of Bengal also built numerous mosques, tombs, forts, monumental gateways, roads, bridges,
gardens, etc. But of all these, their contribution was most significant in the development of
mosque architecture. The Shat Gambuj Mosque (having actually 77 domes) built by Khan Jahan
Ali in the 15th century is the finest and largest in Bangladesh. It is also a protected monument.
Bangladesh was also famous for its textiles—both of cotton and silk. Muslin cloth made of fine
cotton was exported from this region even to Rome and Asia Minor some 2000 years ago. It is
said to have reached such a state of perfection and excellence that European traders flocked to the
shores of Bengal to procure the items. Silk, both raw and fabrics was also exported to Asia and
African markets.
In the above passages, a brief review of our past cultural heritage has been outlined in the days
prior to British rule in Bengal. However, with the commencement of British ascendancy in the
region, the people faced economic ruination. The saddest part is that it was caused by deliberate
and conscious decision on the part of the colonialists. No doubt they introduced many modern
gadgets of industrialization, but only in areas where their interests served or coincided. Lack of
state patronage to indigenous arts and crafts and in the maintenance of cultural properties is a
stark reality of the colonial period.
It is with the liberation of the country that a spate of cultural activities and expressions, both in
private and public sector became evident. The government of Bangladesh also extended its
patronage in a liberal way towards its development and enrichment. Herein, I shall briefly
outline some features of the development of museums in Bangladesh. Some of the salient features
are as follows:
(a) The first museum within the present territory of Bangladesh Varendra Research Museum was
set up in Rajshahi in 1910 as a private venture by three distinguished individuals. The museum is
now under the administrative control of the University of Rajshahi, and has about 10,000 objects
in its collection which includes inscriptions, sculptures, copper plates, coins, manuscripts, and
many pre-historic items of Indus civilization, Mahasthan, Nalanda and Paharpur. From the point
of view of number of objects, it is the second biggest museum of the country next to the
Bangladesh National Museum.
(b) The country's lone ethnological museum is located in Chittagong. The work for the same
started in the mid 1960s but it was formally inaugurated only in January 1974. Besides, the Tribal
Cultural Academy located at Birisiri (Netrokona), Rangamati and the Bandarban Cultural
Institutes have museums attached to these wherein tribal cultural objects are displayed. These
were established in 1977, 1978 and 1984 respectively and are under the administrative control of
the Ministry of Culture.
(c) Memorial museums are a distinctive feature of post independence era. Since the mid 1990's, a
number of such museums have been set up. The prominent ones are Zainul Abedin collections,
Mymensingh (1975); Sher-e-Bangla Museum, Barisal (1982); Osmani Museum, Sylhet (1987);
Michael Madhusudon Museum, Jessore (1989); Ahsan Manzil, Dhaka (1992); Zia Memorial
Museum, Chittagong (1993); Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, Dhaka (1994), Zainal Memorial
Museum, Sonargaon (1997); S.M. Sultan Memorial Collections, Narail (2000); Gandhi Memorial
Museum, Noakhali (2000).

(d) The number of specialized museums is also in the increase. For example, there is now Postal
Museum in Dhaka (1985); Air Force Museum, Dhaka (1987); BMA Museum, Bhatiari (1993);
Police Museum, Dhaka (1995); Maritime Museum, Chittagong (1995); BDR Museum, Dhaka
(1996); Artillery Museum, Chittagong (1997); Dhaka Cantonment Bangabandhu Museum (1998).
(e) The spirit of our great Liberation War has led to the establishment of a number of liberation
war museums. Examples: Liberation War Museum at Comilla (1974); Vijoyanghan, Bogra (1995);
Liberation War Museum, Dhaka (1996); Vijoyghata, Mymensingh Cantonment (1999).
(f) Local museums are also being established to collect, preserve and display objects mainly of the
region. Examples are: Chalan Beel Museum, Natore (1978), and Rangpur Museum (1982).
(g) Establishment of museums through individual efforts is on the increase. Examples are: Rocks
Museum, Panchagarh (1997); Ulfat Rana's Mini Museum, Dhaka. Most of the private collections
of Boldha Museum (established in 1925) set up by Zamindar Narendra Narayan Roy Chowdhury
are now in the National Museum.
(h) The inadequacy of science and technology based museums is most regrettable. The only
science museum of the country—The National Science and Technology Museum is located at
Agargaon, Dhaka. Though the museum started elsewhere in the 1960's, it shifted its present
location in 1987. The National Natural History Museum established in 1974, became a fullfledged museum 1993, and is presently housed in a building at Dhaka National Zoo. There is
also, an ethnobotanical museum (established in 2000) near the Mirpur Botanical Garden.
(i) There exists now a city museum on the 5th floor of Dhaka City Corporation. Established in
1996, it aims at preserving the past history and heritage of the city of Dhaka.
(j) There are a number of site museums in the country. These have been established in the
excavation sites and are under the Archaeological Directorate of the Ministry of Culture. It is,
however, extremely difficult at this point of time to put a figure at the number of museums in
Bangladesh. This has been so as no survey or census of museums, far less of objects, have yet
been made. But knowledgeable persons in the field suggest that it could be around 100 or so. By
far the largest museum in the country is the Bangladesh National Museum. In 1983, the
government decided to incorporate Dhaka Museum (which was established in 1913) into
Bangladesh National Museum through an Ordinance. The Museum is a multidisciplinary one,
situated at the heart of the capital city of Dhaka. It has a total of nearly 84,000 objects in its four
curatorial departments. The museum displays its objects in 43 galleries within a floor space of
nearly 250,000 square feet.
The Museum's curatorial departments are:
(a) The Department of History and Classical Art (with slightly over 66,000 objects);
(b) The Department of Ethnography and Decorative Art (with slightly over 11,000 objects);
(c) The Department of Natural History (with 2300 objects); and
(d) The Department of Contemporary Arts and World Civilization (with about 4,400)
Besides, there are two service departments, namely, Conservation Laboratory and the Public
Bangladesh National Museum has a large collection of ancient and medieval stone sculptures,
architectural pieces and inscriptions, terracotta plaques, bronze and brass images and vases, gold
and silver ornaments, coins, copper plates, arms and weapons, wooden sculptures, musical
instruments, textiles, paintings, ivory object, porcelain and glass, dolls, tribal objects, manuscripts
and documents. There are also galleries for ethnographic object, folk art, and boats of Bangladesh,
embroidered quilts, potteries and natural history specimens.


There are four branch museums under the National Museum. These are Zia Smriti Museum in
Chittagong, Ahsan Manzil Museum in Dhaka and Osmani Museum in Sylhet, and Zainul
Abedin Sangrahasala in Mymensingh.
The museum is an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Government
of Bangladesh. It has a Trustee Board, which makes policy decisions. The chief executive of the
Museum is the Director General who is appointed by the Government.
The Museum has an annual budget of over four crore taka. Needless to say, the bulk of the
money comes from the government exchequer.
Although positive signs of people's interest and awareness towards museums have been amply
demonstrated, especial]y since the liberation of the country, there are certain inadequacies and
limitations in the operation and maintenance of these museums. The principal shortcomings and
problems are as follows:
(a) Documentation of objects is a vital function of any museum. However, preparation of scientific
inventory poses a great challenge. Neither the staff members possess sufficient scientific
knowledge of inventory preparation nor do they have clear concept regarding object identification
and verification. The work requires special skill involving modem gadgets like computers,
scanners, digital cameras, and printers besides appropriate training in the relevant field.
(b) Another great problem is conservation of objects. The climate of Bangladesh is humid and hot
which imposes continuous threat to the preservation of museum objects like manuscripts and
documents, paintings, photographs, etc. Though there is a conservation laboratory in the
Bangladesh National Museum that provides conservation functions for other museums of the
country, the laboratory needs modernization and adequate skilled personnel. Due to inadequacies,
research to improve conservation methods, analytical work to study objects from several points of
view, preventive measures against bio- deterioration, environmental monitoring, cannot be
(c) There is also the question of display of objects. This branch of Museology is highly technical
in nature and the skill required is gained through working experience and continuous exposure
to modern museums abroad. The exhibits in galleries can be arranged in an attractive fashion
only by the trained display department staff.
(d) Most museums in Bangladesh lack modem equipments to control temperature and humidity.
But due to fund constraint and lack of technical knowledge, objects remain vulnerable to the
ravages of weather and time. It is again due to fund constraint that we are unable to install
modern surveillance equipment to counter possible thefts of museum objects. Again, as most
objects in the museums of Bangladesh as elsewhere abroad are kept in storerooms, proper
facilities for their preservation and maintenance is absolutely essential. This is often not possible
due mainly to paucity of funds, and space constraint.
(e) Museums are universally regarded as custodians of national heritage. In Bangladesh, however,
there is no coordinated/integrated policy to develop museums as such. Out of nearly a hundred or
so museums, most are founded and managed by private bodies. They collect objects from diverse
sources including valuable antiquities even though they have no legal right to collect, preserve
and display ancient cultural property.
An overall control by way of registration of museums, drawing up guidelines for their operation,
auditing of funds, monitoring of collections are absolutely vital. In the absence of some measure
of control and monitoring of private museums, our valuable national heritage remains
unaccountable and threatened. The State should frame appropriate legal instruments to bring
those private institutions under some regulation to safeguard our valuable national assets.