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Pakistan’s Intrepid Archaeologist 

Anusha Zahid profiles Dr Asma Ibrahim, Director SBP Museum and Art Gallery. 
Updated 27 Mar, 2024 10:24am

As I walk through the gates of the magnificent building that is the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Museum and Art Gallery (formerly the Imperial Bank of India), I am welcomed by two suited gentlemen in the foyer. Upon learning that I had come to meet Dr Asma Ibrahim, they lead me through the main hall, towards the right side and ask me to wait a few moments. While standing, I look around in awe, absorbing my surroundings; the paintings, objects and collections in a museum that unfortunately I never had the opportunity to visit before. This is when I glance up and see a medium-height woman in a smart navy-blue kameez with white stripes and white trousers walking out of the SBP Gallery towards me. Dr Asma Ibrahim greets me with a smile and a handshake.

While going through a narrow corridor to her spacious office, she tells me about the fire alarm system the SBP is installing in the art gallery on the mezzanine floor. Once in her office, she makes a brief phone call and then turns towards me, her forearms on her desk, hands clasped ready to answer my questions.

Ibrahim, 58, is the Director of the State Bank of Pakistan Museum and Art Gallery, a position she has held since 2006, when she was entrusted with the task of turning the SBP Library into a monetary museum.  Prior to joining SBP, she held positions as Assistant Curator and Director/Curator at the National Museum of Pakistan and served at the Department of Archaeology and Museums of the Government of Pakistan. Ibrahim has a PhD in Numismatics from the University of Karachi and a post-doctorate in Ancient Human Remains from the University of Wisconsin in the US.

Talking about her SBP journey, she recalls it was while pursuing her postdoctoral studies that she learned about the opening at SBP. At that point, she was Director at the National Museum of Pakistan. Interested in the position and keen on seeing her mother who had been unwell, she paid a month’s visit to Karachi, during which she met Sabiha Hasan – a consultant for the SBP Museum project and a member of the advisory committee working on the setting up of the Museum.

“Hasan thought I was fit for the role and SBP was kind enough to allow me to finish my post-doctorate before announcing the interview date. I went to the interview and I was selected.”

The first five years were fairly fraught as they involved acquiring private collections, recruiting and training staff and renovating the old building (it was in “bad shape”) as well as looking after her mother who at one point was hospitalised. 

The Museum opened to the public on July 1, 2011 and was inaugurated by the then SBP Governor, Dr Ishrat Husain. Although Ibrahim had lost her mother a month earlier, she did not postpone the event. The Museum’s purpose is to highlight “the evolution of the monetary system, from barter to e-banking in the Indo-Pakistan region.” It consists of seven galleries; The History of the State Bank of Pakistan; The Governors’ Gallery (portraits and memorabilia of former governors); The Coins Gallery (two galleries displaying pre-Islamic, Islamic and contemporary coins); The Stamp Gallery (from 1947 onwards); The Currency Gallery (includes the complete collection of Pakistani banknotes since 1947 and their history). The seventh gallery is located on the Mezzanine and is known as the Sadequain Art Gallery and contains four spectacular murals – The Laboratory of the Natural Universe (1961), Treasures of Time (1961) and Industry & Agriculture I & II (1965 & 1984) that were created by Sadequain especially for SBP. The Gallery also houses Sadequain’s wood and metal collages, also specially made for the SBP. Next to it is yet another gallery, devoted to contemporary art and aimed at encouraging young and upcoming artists.

According to Ibrahim, the Museum is unique as it contains a continuous and chronological sequence of coins from 6,000 BCE to the present time. Furthermore, the Museum and Art Gallery is the first in Pakistan to acquire membership of the International Council of Museums and the Commonwealth Association of Museums. The entire collection can be viewed on the Google Arts & Culture space, the British Council’s Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) and the American Numismatic Society websites. 

However, despite her undoubted success and stature as a museologist, archaeology remains Ibrahim’s first love. In addition to several archaeological projects, she is currently collaborating with the Harvard University School of Medicine on the retrieval of DNA from human remains that were discovered during the excavation of a Gandhara gravesite. This discovery was part of her post-doctorate thesis, subsequent to which Harvard “approached me and we are collaborating on radio-carbon dating them.”

Ibrahim is currently working on the analysis of pieces of glassware she discovered in Bhanbore in 2011 and 2016. She wants to ascertain whether they were produced in the Subcontinent or imported from elsewhere. In her opinion, no one in India or Pakistan has, so far, worked on the origins of glass in the Subcontinent; how it began and its evolution. “We have beautiful glass objects, yet no one knows where they were made.” 

Her love for archaeology began while studying zoology, chemistry and microbiology during her undergraduate years. Having learned about the evolution of vertebrates and invertebrates, she was curious about human evolution and believed the answers would be found by pursuing archaeology. In 1998 while doing her PhD, she wrote her thesis titled Descendants of Alexander the Great – A New Perspective, on the history of the Greeks in this region. In that paper, she wrote about how by studying coins, one could write about the history of art, economy, geography, weight systems and various writing styles. Her study also led to the discovery of 40 Greeks soldiers who eventually rose to rule in Sindh and Balochistan. She also unearthed a fortress from Alexander’s time in Gujjo village in Sindh, which was built within 39 days and was part of a team that discovered a submerged city near Bhanbore (never mentioned in historic sources). Her work is still in continuation to prove that this was actually the port of Deybal. However, her most exciting project was the ‘discovery’ of a fake mummy and which brought her into the international limelight in 2000. The mummy was ‘discovered’ in Balochistan in the house of a smuggler named Reiki, who claimed the mummy was of a 2,500-year-old Persian princess. Called upon by the police to verify the discovery, Ibrahim, by identifying the writing, art motifs on the sarcophagus and analysing it scientifically, pronounced it to be a fake. At first, no one believed her, until CT scans, forensic analysis and X-rays confirmed the mummy to be that of a woman who had been murdered in 1996. 

“These interesting finds that I come across on a regular basis are the reason why I don’t want to abandon archaeology.” She adds that nevertheless, she had to fight to make a name for herself, as women are not encouraged to engage in archaeology and do fieldwork. 

“There is a lot of potential for archaeology in Pakistan. There is a lot of exploration and excavation that needs to happen because of the existence of so many ancient sites – there are hundreds in Sindh alone.”  In her opinion, all this is interdependent because “people will only come if we teach and disseminate awareness about the importance of archaeology. It is really important for every one of us to know about our past.” 

She adds with more than a touch of regret that “youngsters today do not take pride in their roots. They prefer to go abroad because they think people there are more civilised, educated and advanced. We must correct these notions. Muslims were the most advanced people in science and technology at one time. We have come to this level because we did not give our education system enough attention.”  When not working, she likes catching up on her sleep as working late hours and fulfilling personal responsibilities take their toll during the week. Sunday, she says passes too soon, but if she has the time, she will opt to watch a film – usually an art film or a biopic.  

Looking towards an eventual retirement, Ibrahim ponders about what she will do next. “Work has always been the best medicine for me.” Nevertheless, she has a plan. To work with artisans and revive Pakistan’s dying forms of arts and crafts. “As an archaeologist, I have travelled all over the villages in Pakistan and I know their struggles. I think I will market their work.”