Framed | Art

Initiatives and inaugurations: an interesting churn in the museum sphere

PM Modi at the ‘Ghare-Baire’ exhibition in Kolkata’s Currency Building.   | Photo Credit: PTI

For a grand cultural manifestation on Bengal and its pre-eminent position through the 19th century, the coverage of the opening of three new exhibition spaces has been oddly subdued. Drowned in the din of mass protests, Prime Minister Modi’s recent Kolkata initiative invites a revisit, if only because it signals a decisive announcement on museums. The demand for a museums policy is long-standing, and this is the first major pronouncement on it.

The public commitment to restoring five major museums and making the Indian Museum a ‘world museum’ has struck an unexpected note, even as debates around issues of demolishing, remaking and recasting art and architectural sites rage.

The Prime Minister set the note by inaugurating the restored old mint, or Currency Building, in Kolkata, with the exhibition ‘Ghare-Baire: The World, The Home and Beyond’, with over 800 art works from the colonial to the contemporary period. Recently restored by the ASI, the Mint, which was a condemned building, now has a new lease of life as MoBA or Museum of Bengal Art.

A redesigned portrait gallery in Victoria Memorial gives a place of prominence to Abanindranath Tagore’s 1905 poster titled ‘Bharat Mata’, and the desk on which Bankim Chandra is believed to have written ‘Vande Mataram’. The Prime Minister also visited Metcalfe Hall, a colonnaded building in the manner of Greek temples, which earlier housed a library owned by industrialist Dwarkanath Tagore and the grand Asiatic Society collection.

Flurry of events

He also inaugurated a show of works by Rabindranath Tagore, and archival photography by Lala Deen Dayal and Sunil Janah at Belvedere House, a historic 1828 building which was once the palace of the Viceroy of India.

This perceived initiative that has involved structural conservation as well as a refashioning of public interface, seems to belong to a larger churn in the museum sphere. In a flurry of events, the making of museums, the moving around of collections, and a rehistoricising of events are all under way. Already in Delhi, the refurbishing of the North and South Blocks as museums and the demolition of the National Museum building, all part of the Central Vista, have been announced.

As institutions pass through the process of relocation, a new vision of ‘heritage tourism’ is evidently coming into play, one that will dislodge fixed colonial or modern histories with newer intersections. Dislodging Jawaharlal Nehru’s occupancy of Teen Murti house to include an array of former Prime Ministers, introducing the ‘Kranti Mandir’ exhibitions at the Red Fort complex, which foreground the ideology of Veer Savarkar and Subhash Chandra Bose, among others, are among the first steps. In the same vein, Modi has also called for a Biplobi Bharat museum with Bengali freedom movement figures such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghose, Rash Behari Bose, Chittaranjan Das and others. The museum is thus perceived as entrenched in a polyvocal national history. The Prime Minister has also spoken for the beautification of other historic museums across the country, such as the National Museum, Delhi; Madras Museum; Indian Museum, Kolkata; Hyderabad and Shri Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar Museum.

In the flurry of activity, it may be necessary to take a larger view that would create a genuine museum culture. A trained cadre of museologists is urgently needed, and curators are alarmingly short. Experts are invited only sporadically. For several years now, major institutions have been run by IAS officers in uninspired tenures. The task of creating a world-class museum is indeed desirable, but the curatorial heft, the documentation and programming all have to work in tandem.

Weight of inertia

Much like the proposed Central Vista project, the ideas around museums are still not in the public domain. It may be worthwhile for the government to consider the number of museums it already runs, many of which are collapsing under the weight of public inertia. In the heart of the capital, the Supreme Court Museum, the Dolls Museum and Gandhi Smriti, to name a few, have received little or no worthwhile attention. The important question then is whether India is not proferring its own model of the museum, which is not the monolithic capital-intensive model of the West, but the smaller, home-grown initiative. In the new millennium, at least 50 such have come up, which record the idiosyncratic, the domestic and the traumatic, with modest budgets but passionate commitment.

To bring the public into museums will need a far more concerted effort. On Kolkata’s arterial Chowringhee, a virtual hawker’s market crowds the Indian Museum for a mile on either side, a noisy hub of shoppers and browsers. How many of them step into the 200-year-old institution, with its extraordinary Bharhut and Gandhara galleries?

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 11:38:02 AM |

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