Sunday, July 1, 2012

Observations in a Museum

Last weekend, I finally had a chance to indulge in one of my favorite vacation pastimes: visiting museum. I particularly enjoy art museums, but any chance to see culturally revealing artifacts amuses me. With a couple of friends, I traveled to the Liberation War Museum and as always, the journey there proved to be an adventure. Bangladesh houses two “must-see” museums: the National Museum and the Liberation War Museum. Big surprise, our CNG driver did not know where the Liberation War Museum was. He did know where the nearby park was, so we stopped there and asked the policeman on duty in the park. He did not know where the museum was either. The group of three policemen across the street did not know either. As we ran into more authority figures, we accrued bits of directions which we pieced together until we saw a group of rickshaws and decided to test our luck again. When we asked the rickshaw driver to take us to the National Museum, thinking we may have a better shot at finding this museum, he drove us directly to the Liberation War Museum. Go figure.

The entrance fee cost 5 taka, about half a cent. The museum had a yellow and red path drawn to guide visitors through the museum chronologically. I initially felt very unprepared for this museum, as the exhibits provided very little background information. My friends and I laughed at the displays with witty descriptions since the jokes were fairly incomprehensible for someone without fluent Bangla. We also couldn’t help but notice the paper display tags finished with ink-jet print were posted on the wall with push pins, as if this was a high school history research project. I don’t mean to bash this museum, but its displays took on a much different quality than even the art galleries on my college campus. Even so, Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum managed to evoke strong emotions within me.

I knew going into this visit that this museum covered a fairly depressing chunk of Bengali history. What I did not realize is how well the U.S. museums I have attended sugar coat our history. Most notably, the Liberation War Museum houses dozens of skulls, rib cages, femurs, and various other bones from victims of the genocide which took place in Bangladesh before it gained its freedom. This on top of many gruesome pictures of disheveled, malnourished bodies tore at my heart. A picture of young, starving children holding hands and a caption reading, “This picture was taken moments before these children’s last breath” grabbed me like no other historical relic had ever grabbed me before. Something was so palpable about this picture and its context.

While the emotional stress of this museum exhausted me, the setting helped put me at ease. Three-fifths of the way through the museum, the path led visitors outside onto a balcony which lush trees invaded. Although I knew I was in the middle of Dhaka, I felt like I had entered a time capsule that brought me back in time and into the jungle, before this bustling city had sprung up and before the strife of newfound independence.

For one, the museum taught me that once in a third world country, you’re stuck in a third world country. This museum did not measure up to the caliber I expected. When we entered, a sign read that a mere 430,000 visitors have come to this museum. Personally, I see museums as a must-do activity in any city, but when one-third of your population lives on less than $1 per day, you cannot expect that many locals have indulged in their own cultural offerings. Nor can you expect that the museum is state of the art. Another thing this museum reaffirmed was the stark reality of the third world. At home in America, in can be easy to hide in my 6-acre plot of land on the edge of rural Minnesota, or in my private liberal arts college of 1350 students, or under my covers, under my canopy bed, under my beautiful roof with my beautiful, healthy family. Although I am in the most developed district of Dhaka, the most developed city in Bangladesh, poverty does not escape. The government is trying to push the slums to the outskirts of the city, but even if they could, poverty permeates too many aspects of this city for its citizens to lose sight of reality. The beggars crowding Gulshan Avenue, the helmet-less construction workers building skyscrapers dozens of meters above ground, the frail rickshaw drivers wearing tattered, sweat stained clothing; they remind me every day of hardships people face here in Bangladesh and all over the world. They remind me just how easy I have it, and just how few people have it that easy.

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