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Treasure house of art and culture

The Government Museum at Egmore, one of the oldest and biggest in South Asia, is internationally known for its Amaravati sculptures, bronzes, coins and medals. As part of the post centenary golden jubilee celebrations, it is at present being given a facelift.

NOT MANY are aware that among all the cities in India, Chennai boasts of the largest number of museums. While tourists throng the bigger museums such as the Government Museum at Egmore and the Fort Museum within the Fort. St. George, the smaller museums such as the Archaeological Museum of the Madras University, the Ramananujam Museum at Royapuram and the Prehistoric Museum at Poondi are hardly known to the many Chennai-ites.

The Government Museum at Egmore, popularly known as the Madras Museum, is one of the oldest and biggest in South Asia. Way back in 1828, the Madras Literary Society, one of the earliest voluntary organisations of Madras, launched a quiet campaign for starting a Museum of Economic Geology in the city. Towards this end, the society began to collect geological samples but it did not have the financial resources or the technical expertise to establish a museum. On November 10, 1843, it appealed to the British East India Company, which was then ruling over most parts of the country, for a museum in the city. In 1846, the Court of Directors of the company formally approved the suggestion of the society. And on January 19, 1851, the museum was inaugurated and Dr. Edward Green Balfour, a leading surgeon and author, was appointed honorary part-time superintendent.

Many British officials suggested that the museum might be made a constituent of the Madras University, on the lines of those attached to leading universities in Britain. But, this suggestion was not implemented because the Madras University was then in its formative years and did not have the buildings and staff for administering a museum.

The notification in the Fort St. George Gazette of Tuesday evening, April 29, 1851 says that "the museum is open to all visitors, everyday, Sundays excepted, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6.30 p.m." Initially, the museum was housed in a few rooms on the upper floor of a college. In 1853, it moved to its present spacious premises on Pantheon Road. The premises, dating back to the late 18th Century, was originally called the "Pantheon" or "Public Rooms" or "Assembly Rooms." Prior to its transformation as a museum, it was the venue of several dinners, balls and theatre performances for the Europeans who were then settled in Madras.

Initially, the collections in the museum were those of the Madras Literary Society. They gradually grew mainly through gifts from leading art collectors and philanthropists in South India.

In 1859, Balfour was succeeded by Captain Jesse Mitchell, who started a small library for the museum in June 1862. This library later evolved into the famous Connemara Public Library, adjoining the museum. Mitchell also initiated a collection of old coins and medals. By 1865, the museum had a sizeable collection of historic coins, including Roman coins discovered in different parts of South India. George Bidie, who succeeded Mitchell in 1872, further enlarged the coin collection and also published in 1874, the first ever catalogue of Roman coins found in India. This is a rare and valuable book but is scarcely consulted by present-day historians and archaeologists.

During Bidie's time, the museum acquired many of the large Buddhist sculptures from Amaravati near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. From 1873, it became the venue of several public lectures on its different aspects and collections.

In 1878, a group of Muslim gentlemen requested the authorities to allow the women of their families to see the museum in seclusion. Hence, the afternoon of the first Saturday of each month was set apart exclusively for women visitors. On these days, all the galleries were manned by women attendants. But his arrangement was stopped from April 7, 1951.

In 1885, Edgar Thurston became the first full-time superintendent of the museum. He expanded its natural history collections. He also published several new catalogues, including a revised and expanded version of Bidie's catalogue of Roman coins.

During World War II, the museum was temporarily closed because a portion of its premises was used by the army. Many of the galleries were lined with sandbags to safeguard the artefacts from damage by bombs. Around this time, the museum initiated trial archaeological excavations at a historic site called Arikamedu near Pondicherry. Eventually, the site turned out to be one of the most important trade centres of ancient India. In 1951, the centenary celebration of the museum was inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India.

The museum is internationally known mainly for its Amaravati sculptures, bronzes, coins and medals. It has the largest collection of Roman coins outside Europe.

As part of the post centenary golden jubilee celebrations, the museum is currently being renovated and refurbished. It has also recently reprinted several old catalogues that were out of print for many years.


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