Museum staff express concern over moving artifacts to host Independence Day event

National Museum staff and Male’-based arts NGO Revive have expressed concern over plans to move delicate exhibits for upcoming Independence Day celebrations to be held in the museum.

“We at the national museum believe the museum’s objects are very valuable and cannot be replaced if anything happens to any of the items,” National Museum Director Ali Waheed told Minivan News.

“I am concerned, we are not happy about this,” Waheed said.

He said that the President’s Office had sent a letter about holding the Independence Day event to the Tourism Ministry, which had in turn notified their Department of National Heritage.

“The department only informed us about the event three days ago,” Waheed claimed.

He said there were concerns that National Heritage Department Director General Zakariyya Hussain had not consulted museum staff about whether holding the event in the museum would be sensible.

“Zakariyya gave the approval but he didn’t say anything to us. He didn’t want to talk about it. At least he has to ask if this is good or not,” he claimed.

The President’s Office meanwhile said it had not been informed of the museum staff’s grievances, while rejecting claims that there would be any issues with holding such an event in the museum.

The President’s Office held an Independence Day event at the National Museum last year, which posed the same challenges to staff as it took place during Ramazan. The permanent exhibition items had to be shifted internally and placed against the walls to clear the middle of the hall, according to Assistant Curator Ismail Ashraf.

“[However,] it was quite different last year because there were many political issues and they were not able to get another venue,” noted Ashraf.

“During last year’s ceremony government agency heads and parliament members attended and there was no damage to the objects,” he continued. “However, there is the risk and probability of something happening [this year] when 400 plus people will be attending.”

Staff accepted that a similar event to celebrate the 2012 Independence Day had been held at the museum without incident – although the guest list is anticipated to be larger this year.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News yesterday (July 22) that the government did care about preserving Maldivian culture and heritage, but dismissed concerns that there were any politics involved in the event.

“There is enough time [for museum staff to prepare], we have not been informed [holding the event is problematic],” said Masood. “Nobody feels it is an issue. Minivan News is not the party that should be spreading these concerns, this is not a claim the museum staff are making, Minivan News is actually,” Masood said.

NGO Revive has meanwhile said it plans to submit a petition, signed by National Museum staff, to the President’s Office tomorrow (July 24) requesting the government reconsider its decision to hold the July 27 Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum.

National Museum concerns

“We are caring about these things very much. The objects are very, very old and delicate. If they are moved several times, it may cause damage. I am responsible for their safety and security,” Waheed told Minivan News.

“I submitted a letter to Director General Zakariyya Hussain at 1:10pm on Monday (July 22) that we [the museum staff] are not responsible [for the damage that may be caused] when the objects are side by side in the hall,” he claimed.

Ashraf the assistant curator echoed Waheed’s sentiments that moving the artifacts to accommodate the event risked damaging them.

“It’s a permanent exhibition and we will have to move everything [on the ground floor] away to make a walkway for people for the ceremony,” Ashraf told Minivan News. “There are many artifacts to have to move, and having to do so quickly poses a risk of damaging the objects.”

“The other risk is that lots of people come in and not all will think the same way we do, [so] it is a risk that people may touch or take,” he continued.

Ashraf explained said that since the museum only has six permanent staff, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is supposed to help with moving the artifacts.

“They can help move the very heavy things, but we have to be there to supervise. We are in charge and if there is any damage [caused to the items] we are responsible,” he said.

Since it is currently the holy month of Ramazan, the amount of work National Museum staff can accomplish in preparation for the Independence Day event is also limited due to restricted working hours, Ashraf explained.

“In the month of Ramazan, museum hours are 9:00am to 1:30pm. This Independence Day event will take place Saturday night and Sunday  morning we have to open the museum [to visitors],” he noted.

Ashraf urged the President’s Office to hold the event in another location.

“This year there are other options, so why still choose the National Museum?” he asked.

“The National Art Gallery has a full hall empty for temporary exhibitions, with enough space for the ceremony”.

Ashraf also noted that artifacts were destroyed “the day the government changed”, during former President Mohamed Nasheed’s controversial transition of power last year – by people with “different thoughts” to those of the museum’s staff.

“A mob of people took advantage of the lack of security,” he explained. “These things happened and the risk [of it happening again] is still there. It shows the government doesn’t have much interest in this work,” he alleged.

Civil society support

Revive, a local NGO which works in collaboration with the National Archives and National Museum, has advocated in support of the museum staff’s concerns surrounding the event.

“I’m very surprised the government [is holding this event] but are not able to arrest those who vandalized the museum last year,” Revive President Ahmed Naufal told Minivan News.

“Moving permanent exhibitions is not done anywhere in the world, only temporary exhibitions,” Naufal explained.

“National Museum staff have a low budget and are unable to preserve [everything],” he continued. “There is a high risk items will be destroyed by moving the exhibition.”

National museum staff have signed the ‘Revive Petition’, which calls on the government to reconsider its decision to hold the Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum, as it would require moving the permanent collection of artifacts which could cause damage that cannot be restored.

“Fifteen staff have signed the petition. That’s everyone who came to the [National] Museum and Heritage Department,” noted Naufal.

“This includes the only Maldivian archaeologist from the Heritage Department, Shiura Jaufar and the National Museum Director.”


US to assist in restoration of damaged pre-Islamic artifacts

United States funding for cultural preservation will be used to restore pre-Islamic artifacts in the National Museum, which were destroyed by a mob that broke into the building amid February 7’s political turmoil.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Patricia Butenis, made the announcement yesterday evening during a event held in Traders Hotel to celebrate the 236th anniversary of US Independence.

“We had intended to help preserve the priceless fragile pre-Islamic artifacts in the National Museum, the very ones destroyed in February when some thugs broke into the museum,” said Ambassador Butenis. “We have received funding for this project, which will now be used to restore the damaged artifacts to the fullest extent possible, and maintain the museum’s early collection of textiles.”

According to a museum source, the destroyed artifacts included one the museum’s most significant pieces – a coral stone head of Lord Buddha, an 11th century piece recovered from Thoddoo in Alifu Atoll.

Other pieces vandalised included the Bohomala sculptures, monkey statues and a broken statue piece of the Hindu water god, Makara, while the two five faced statues discovered in Male’ were also damaged – the only remaining archaeological evidence proving the existence of a Buddhist era in the Maldives.

Speaking at the ceremony, Ambassador Butenis urged the Maldives to continue to develop its democracy, and emphasised that the US had itself experienced a difficult struggle to implement the concept.

“In the first decade of of our nation’s existence, questions of how to form our government persisted as we tried to address the concerns of 13 different states. Despite strong disagreements, each nonetheless sent representatives to the convention and formed a government acceptable to all,” she said.

The convention produced what is rightfully hailed as a landmark document, and one that established a strong foundation for the rule of law. Its counterpart, the bill of rights, enshrined many of our basic rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion,” she added.

“But the original Constitution was not without flaws. It failed to protect people of all genders and races. The struggle to improve our laws, and for a just democracy and society, continues even today.”

Butenis said the US “knows how tough and rough the road to democracy can be, and the path to improve it. It requires the involvement of all sectors of society, political leaders and an active free press. It requires political leaders to put the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. This is as true for your country as it is for mine,” she said.

The US supported the work of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI), she said, initiated in agreement with the Commonwealth, and the political party talks facilitated by the UN.

“These two mechanisms, with the necessary participation of all political parties, can provide a way forward to resolve the issue of an election date and the political turmoil that continues to preoccupy many citizens of the Maldives,” she said.

She also expressed “alarm, frankly”, at the “reports of violence during protests, violence towards journalists, and accusations of police violence and brutality. In our training with Maldivian police, we stress the importance of maintaining human rights,” she said.

Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen spoke at the event on behalf of the Maldivian government, thanking the US for its continued assistance, particularly in terms of military training, tsunami recovery and reconstruction efforts.

“The US is a country for people to dream, and win their dream – the American Dream,” Deen said.

“Many people in the world, from all different countries, have achieved that dream, because the US has maintained its democracy and equality for all nationalities, religions and races.”