From cowrie shells to credit cards: State Bank museum opens

Never before seen Sadequain murals and the country’s first ATM machine go on display.

Maria Waqar July 02, 2011


The pink sandstone structure of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Museum and Art Gallery, with its looming wooden doors and jumbo window shutters, has a weathered look. Yet the interior of this grand colonial building opens in drastic contrast to its antiquated exterior. The varnished wooden staircase, spangling spotlights and a renovated brass and glass skylight, exude nothing but modern splendour.

On Friday, proud State Bank staff inaugurated the institution’s museum and art gallery at a ceremony attended by the city’s bankers, artists and media. The museum was previously housed in the SBP’s library but in 2004 the bank decided to convert it into a venue for documenting the evolution of the monetisation of the sub-continent, especially Pakistan. The motive was to create a world-class site showing how the concept of money progressed from cowrie shells to credit cards over the centuries. The chief guest at the opening event was former SBP governor, Dr Ishrat Husain.

On display is coinage, currency notes, stamps and artefacts. But the museum also exhibits many interesting items such as archaic coin-making apparatus and the country’s first ATM machine.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this historic preserve is the coin collection, showing how political vicissitudes impacted currency. The coins on display have been neatly divided into two chronological phases — pre-Islamic and Islamic coinage of India and Pakistan, although the description is rather off kilter since Pakistan did not even exist until 1947. The fascinating repertoire of nickel, copper and silver coins with multilingual carvings are associated with the all-too familiar conquerors of history books. For instance, the Aryans, Khushans and Guptas feature in the pre-Islamic period while the Gauris, Ghaznavids and the Mughals feature in the Islamic period. The linear trajectory of coinage, which almost matches the timeline of most textbooks in Pakistan, highlights that the complex history of the sub-continent is always confined to simple timelines and neat sequential paths.

The second storey of the museum’s building houses a small art gallery showcasing the works of the renowned rebel artist, Sadequain, and a few other contemporary artists such as Marium Khan and Amir Hasan Rizvi. According to the museum and art gallery’s director, Asma Ibrahim, the SBP is going to unveil murals never before seen by the public.

Sadequain’s murals, originally made for the bank, are grand illustrations depicting distorted life-sized figures whose course texture comes from the fine lines etched into the paint by a blade.

The museum, displaying lengthy historical descriptions and trained tour guides, is the first of its kind in Pakistan and is now open for public viewing.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2011.


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