“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”

The Herald: September 2011

“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”: Venetia Porter, curator of the British Museum’s Hajj exhibit

London’s British Museum announced this August that a new exhibition entitled Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam will open at the museum in January 2012, bringing together historic and contemporary objects – including contemporary art, video, pilgrims’ testimonies, manuscripts, textiles, archaeological items and photography – to explore the experience and importance of the annual pilgrimage. Visitors to the exhibition can also expect sound-cones emitting the labbaik prayer, extracts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (he went on Hajj in 1964), the Kiswah (the cloth covering the Kaaba) and the bottle that explorer Richard Burton filled with water from the Zamzam well in 1853. The show is scheduled to run from January 26 – April 15, 2012.

Venetia Porter, responsible for the British Museum’s collection of Islamic and modern Middle Eastern art and also chief curator for the exhibition, spoke to the Herald on how this exhibition will focus on the history of Islam and the region, while looking at the material culture surrounding the religion.

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Paper work

2014-01-27 20.20.40The Herald: August 2011

Paper work

The challenges in documenting and accessing historical records in Pakistan

“How much has India paid you to get this information?” asked a librarian at a government archive when a private archivist Ahmed Saleem attempted to access documents for his research into Sikh history. Saleem laughs as he recalls his (mis)adventures in Pakistan’s provincial and national archives. “Staff members at the archives would have a number of excuses for my request to access files,” he says.

During the course of his research into Partition, Saleem was often told that the material he was seeking was classified as it posed a potential threat to ‘Pakistan’s integrity’. He believes “the chief secretary of the Punjab Archives keeps all records of Bhagat Singh’s trial in a drawer in his desk and if you ask for these files, he questions whether you are working for India.”

Saleem’s assertions echo what researchers in Pakistan have been saying for years: government archives are rich repositories of information for those researchers who manage to whisper the right words to open these veritable Solomon’s mines of historical records. With provincial archives slowly transferring data from outdated microfilms into computerised systems, these records are largely well preserved, though poorly organised. As one former archive director says, “There is no shortage of funds — that is a myth.” The problem, he believes, lies within the administration, failing to employ professional, well-trained archivists who are able to handle the material in their charge.

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