From 1996 to 2017, the Liberation War Museum (LWM) in Bangladesh has gone from being a budding project of a team of dedicated trustees to what they want to call a “people's museum”. The group started off with scrounging together enough cash to create a trust fund and travel the nation in search of the stories of pain and pride from 1971, and collecting artifacts and information related to the Bangladeshi struggle for independence.
20 years in the making, the LWM has finally shifted to its new premises in the capital's Agargaon area, with the Honourable PM Sheikh Hasina formally inaugurating the museum on April 16, 2017. Designed by budding architect Tanzim Hasan, the 20,000 sq meter museum now houses over 21,000 artifacts that have been collected over the years.
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Wandering through the now expansive spaces of the Liberation War Museum, you not only learn the greater story of the Liberation War in more detail than what most of us know from formal education – it is the simpler stories of resistance, and glimpses into the lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, that really touches you. You see the black-and-white faces of freedom fighters, young men clad in simple lungis, who will never return. You see the faces of Birangonas hopelessly staring into the distance, of children fearlessly running head on into protests, and the sheer horror of the torture inflicted on martyred intellectuals in the final few days of the war.
But you also take immense pride in the pockets of resistance that flowered across the country; starting from the young women in guerrilla training to the fiery words of poets dreaming of revolution, the LWM invokes what is perhaps even more relevant in 2016 – the spirit of 1971, and the unconditional love for one's nation that made even the simplest farmer turn into a fearless freedom fighter.
The LWM's galleries are truly an emotive experience, and filled with little gems that most of us have no idea exist, whether is the rudimentary contraptions used on rail tracks to transport necessary resources in a war-ravaged nation, a makeshift press used to print revolutionary slogans, or a newspaper clipping of the first time a football team representing Bangladesh, and not East Pakistan played the game to raise awareness about the war-torn nation. The museum's representation of history comes in many layers, with a focus not only on the history of the war at home, but of the greater political game being played by world powers at the height of the Cold War, as well as the international focus on the genocide that occurred during those nine months.
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Last but not least, the LWM also plays a crucial role in preserving the history that many would have us forget, such as a newspaper article written by the notorious war criminal Ghulam Azam on how Hindus cannot be friends with Muslims, and decrying the secularism that was the fire lighting the flames of revolution in an independent Bangladesh. In fact, the LWM played an important role in contributing evidence to the recent war crimes trials, and continues to add to some much-needed research on 1971 through its Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice, as well as the Institute of Liberation War Studies. On top of that, it constantly engages in outreach programmes for the younger generation, including organising museum visits and creating a mini museum on wheels to reach school children from across the country, as well as inspiring them to collect eye-witness accounts. So far, over 28,000 records have been collected through this programme.
According to LWM trustee Dr Sarwar Ali, “There was a time we were worried that many aspects of our history would be lost to the next generation. But the immense support we get, as well as the renewed interest in justice after the Shahbagh movement, has made us very hopeful. The museum's journey has been a very emotional one, and we have high hopes of the next generation taking over and taking it further.”
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Dr Sarwar Ali, LWM trustee[/caption]
“When we started off, we (the trustees) all contributed to a trust fund to set up the museum, no matter how difficult it was for us. How could we ask people for money for our cause, if we were not willing to invest in it ourselves? There are a lot of things in Bangladesh that make us feel frustrated, but we have learnt that if the country needs something, and if there are a group of people dedicatedly working towards it whose intentions cannot be questioned – then ordinary people will come together to show their support.
We started off with only Tk 25,000 each, and we needed Tk 140 crore for the new premises. Of this, Tk 40 crore came from the government, but the rest simply came from ordinary people in Bangladesh, starting from donations from bank officials to tiffin money from school children. No foreign funds were involved.”
- Dr Sarwar Ali, LWM trustee
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Asaduzzaman Noor, LWM trustee[/caption]
“Everyone has contributed to the museum – from a schoolchild to a rickshaw puller, and a petty shopkeeper to a large-scale corporation. For this reason I think it truly is a people's museum, but now we need to ensure that it continues to grow and evolve, and not just turn into a collection of exhibits within four walls.
Our most important task now is to bring in the younger generation to not only know of the history of the Liberation War, but to assimilate the spirit of the time. Without this, it will not be possible to infuse new blood into the museum and hand over its care to a new generation that truly believes in it. Another important focus is obviously on doing proper historical research, as well as recording our oral history before it is too late.”
- Asaduzzaman Noor, LWM trustee
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Tariq Ali, LWM trustee[/caption]
“The hugeness of what this museum has turned out to be has stunned us the most. This was always a personal and emotional project for us, and we have all worked together in the background to make this happen because we really believed in this – there was never any public posturing or vying for leadership. This museum is our gift to the next generation and we hope you will all come together and become involved in preserving it.”
- Tariq Ali, LWM trustee