I’ve been trying to go to the Lahore Museum for some years now but something kept getting in the way. Protests, timings, traffic. One time I made it to near the turning but a VIP entourage kept traffic waiting for 45 minutes. The last time, I got as far as the the brick-and-marble facade before I was told the museum had no electricity, but I went in anyway. The windows have mostly been covered up and there is no natural light inside the galleries. Sharp shafts of light pierced the halls through the slits of high windows near the ceiling that occasionally lit up one marble piece, giving the place the atmosphere of a period drama’s more reflective scenes. Even in the darkened corridors of unfamiliar wings I got flashes from school trips long ago: memories of children led in pairs of two to stand in front of the Starving Buddha (“Do you think it’s Atkins?”); kids playing hide and seek between the marble folds of the statue of Queen Victoria; memories of a pain in the neck from staring up at the massive motheaten Saddequain mural that spans the entirety of the ceiling.
But this week I conned my way into a group of art historians who were going to see the Museum’s miniature collection one afternoon. I had assumed we would be seeing the pieces on permanent display in the main museum, but when I arrived, I was directed through a series of twists and turns to the archives, a modest structure that carries treasures behind the main building. Inside is a large room are rows of storage cabinets that lead to a large safe (every time I tried to peek inside a guard called Munda stood with a puffed chest and a sense of outrage that made me feel like a supporting characters from a Oceans 11).
In the middle of the room was a small table with over 100 of the museum’s more spectacular miniatures. They were lovingly maintained and beautifully protected – no different really to their cousins that I’ve seen in museum archives abroad, which was relief. To be able to see a miniature painting in real life is a privilege, but to be able to hold it at arms’ length is an honour. Most of the peices would have been commissioned by patrons who would have handled them by hand, holding the picture up to a crowd of admirers while they read the script on the reverse side. Think of it like 17th-century moviemaking.
The only other people in the room were two suspicious guards and one of the museum’s curators. We got to chatting and I asked her about the Saddequain mural in the main hall, which had been taken down from display for restoration some time back. I am not terribly fond of the mural or the artist for that matter, but one of my more recent obsessions is watching art restoration videos on Youtube before falling asleep. I think the curator was slightly taken aback by my inexplicable knowledge of canvas fasteners.
“is it in the lab?” I asked, imagining the mural rolled on a hundred-foot table in a a gleaming white room while an army of conservators in clean suits worked on it.
“It is,” she said, “I mean, it’s just me and one other person working on it, but if you want, I can show you!”
Turns out the mural is actually made up of 48 individual canvasses. They were painted on the ground and then reassembled on the celling to form a large picture. If you’re wondering, as I did, why Saddequain didn’t climb all the way to the roof and paint it on there, think about what happens to a coat of paint in South Asian weather after one year’s worth of seasonal changes and then multiply that damage by the factor of Art. In truth, the Sistine Chapel would not have survived 16 years in our weather.
Inside the lab I could see two of the 48 canvasses leaning against a table while a conservator – a charming older man – sat in a chair nearby after taking a break from working. Next to him was a tray with his rags and water colours (they use reversible paints for restoring old pictures) and we spoke a some length about what kind of materials Saddequain used in his work (plot twist: they weren’t great).
Before I knew it, the museum was about to close and so I ran inside to see the contemporary art which contains some truly awful works by some truly great artists. The main exception to this is the large painting titled ‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba’ by Allabux, which is worth its own visit to the museum if you have the time (and your own flashlight).
Although I would suggest that you bring your own flashlight. All the fashionable curators have one these days.