Founded in 1865 as the Industrial Arts Museum of Punjab to project the arts and crafts of the country at a smaller location in a hall built for the 1864 Punjab Exhibition on the site of the current Tollinton Market, Lahore Museum opened at its current location on The Mall in Lahore in 1894, during the British ruled India. Housing an extensive collection of historical relics, especially Buddhist art from the ancient Indo-Greek and Gandhara Kingdoms, it is reckoned as the largest and one of the most visited museums in Pakistan.
Displaying archaeological materials from the Bronze Age to the medieval Hindu Shahi period of the early medieval period in the Indian subcontinent, it also houses one of the largest collections of archaeology, history, arts, fine arts, applied arts, ethnology and artefacts in the country, along with an extensive collection of Hellenistic and Mughal coins. As the country’s oldest cultural institution, the mission of the museum is to conserve and promote the cultural, visual and material heritage of the country and seeks to educate its visitors about the history of Pakistan through its massive collection, spanning from the pre-historic period to the present day.
Standing with majestic grace in front of the Zamzama Gun, a large-bore cannon that was cast in 1762, on Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam, previously known as the Mall Road, the massive red-brick building of Lahore Museum was constructed to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, the cornerstone of which was laid on the 3rd day of February 1890 by Prince Albert Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria.
Designed by the well-known architect from Lahore, Sir Ganga Ram and built in the Indo-Saracenic Revival architectural style, a blend of Mughal and British Colonial Architecture, the building opened its doors to the public in 1894 with its new name as Jubilee Museum. Locally referred to as the Ajaib Ghar, the two storey building of the Lahore Museum, one of the most impressive Anglo-Mughal edifices in the vicinity, contains an auditorium on the ground floor, while the first floor houses one of the finest antiquarian libraries in Pakistan.
Proudly exhibiting the magnificent conception and serene architectural details, the ground plan of the structure is balanced and well proportioned in composition, mainly consisting of three parts, the central projection, flanked by the east and the west end galleries, corresponding to the English alphabet E. The entrance to the building is provided through a pillared porch, covered with a marble façade, leading to a vestibule that helps to approach the central gallery.
The vestibule, basically a three storey structure, supported by four engaged turrets, reflects the blend of Hindu and Muslim architectural traditions. The turrets on the front consist of two portions and while the lower portion contains an arched entrance and a latticed screen, the upper part is equipped with an arched window and a small balcony, topped by an onion shaped cupola. However, the most prominent and most attractive part of the architectural composition of the vestibule is its onion dome, resting on a high drum and crowned with a cupola, complete with a pointed finial, enhancing the grace of the structure.
The ceiling of the entrance hall of the museum is decorated with a large mural, named the Evolution of Mankind, created by Pakistani artist Sadequain, consisting of 48 panels, each measuring 6 by 8 feet, which was completed in 1973. Unfortunately, the mural suffered significant damage over the years due to adverse weather conditions and termite attacks, although the grant for its restoration work was approved by the Governor of Punjab as late as 2008. Consequently, the restoration work began in 2012 and 16 of the panels had been restored by Uzma Usmani and Mumtaz Hussain by 2018.
Apart from the important relics from the Indus Valley civilization, Gandhara and Greco-Bactrian periods, the huge collection of the Lahore Museum includes several Greco-Buddhist sculptures, Mughal and Pahari paintings, invaluable manuscripts, collection of jewellery, rare coins, musical instruments and a good collection of elaborately ornamented arms and armour. All the items are meticulously arranged in separate galleries, which include the Pre and Protohistoric Gallery, Gandhara Gallery of sculptures, Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina Gallery, Islamic Gallery, Ethnological Gallery, Arms Gallery and galleries for Coins, Postage Stamps, Manuscripts and Miniature Paintings. There is also a separate gallery, dedicated to the story of Pakistan. While the Greco-Buddhist sculptures were excavated from several sites in the Peshāwar district, the central part of the Archaeological Gallery houses a stūpa drum of Sikri, carved with scenes from the life of Buddha.
In its permanent collection, the Lahore Museum houses around 60,000 artefacts of immense historical, cultural and artistic value. It has preserved several invaluable artefacts, which include Indus seals, a stone piece with sculpted figures of Hindu god, Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati, found from a neglected site near Lahore, a huge sculpted architectural piece depicting Hindu goddess Durga, in her form as Mahishasura Mardini, slayer of the buffalo demon and the statue of Fasting Siddhartha, which is not only one of the finest specimen of Gandhara Art but also one of the rarest antiquities.
After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the artefacts of the museum were divided between the two neighbouring countries in 1948, as part of the partition of Punjab, when the Lahore Museum retained around 60% of its collection and the rest was given to India, which was eventually housed at the newly built Government Museum and Art Gallery in Chandigarh.
With its extensive and exclusive collection of invaluable historical relics, the Lahore Museum ranks as one of the most highly visited museums in the country. Today, the museum is equipped with a well-stocked library, which includes thousands of rare manuscripts, accessible to interested persons and an auditorium, where several events are arranged throughout the year. Apart from that, the complex of the museum also contains a cafeteria and a bookshop to the delight of the visitors.