Art museums and the craft of democracy

One idea would be to have a building dedicated to quarrying new histories and fostering fresh deliberations | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Inaugurating the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya on the grounds of Teen Murti House in New Delhi on April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the new museum would help youth value the expansion of constitutional government since Independence. However, on this occasion, he did not offer an update on ongoing efforts to convert the North and South Block buildings which flank Rashtrapati Bhavan and currently house the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Home Affairs, Defence, Finance, and External Affairs into India’s largest museum.

Projected narrative

The last communiqué was issued five months ago. It stated that the new museum on Raisina Hill will open by 2026 and will “vividly demonstrate different aspects of India or Bharat that always existed in a cultural and spiritual sense even if historical exigencies have prevented the attainment of nationhood”. Gauging from museum projects that the current administration has financed, it is plausible that this narrative will be primarily conveyed through augmented reality experiences, computerised kinetic sculptures, holograms, and smartphone applications. The current National Museum on Janpath will be dismantled and most of its collections shifted to a storage facility. It is important that the new museum is not haunted by the spectres of a colonial past and is able to meet a basic obligation — the promotion of democratic principles.

Large art museums emerged in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alongside the rise of nations, colonial empires, and industrialisation. Consider the case of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Among the world’s largest and most-visited museums today, it was founded during the French Revolution as rebels forced open vast collections of painting and statuary held privately until then by France’s absolute monarchs to Parisians. For the next 150 years, the Louvre inspired a new national consciousness by using its palatial halls to showcase the aesthetic, social, and scientific achievements of the French people. Its exhibitions compared these with the ‘slow progress’ of other civilisations. In time, this model spread to other emergent countries to empower their publics. After decolonisation, museums along western lines were built in newly independent countries to bolster their national narratives.

Thus, the current regime’s plan to showcase a bold new India by developing a sprawling museum on Raisina Hill, perhaps largely bereft of historical artifacts, is a paradoxical return to an older era where the primary purpose of a museum was to nurture patriotism and showcase triumph. In the tumultuous times that we live in, is it possible to imagine that the new museum will acknowledge India’s continuing diversity including its many conflicts, view cultural heritage as a process requiring museum goers to actively engage with a past that is both inspiring and despairing, and serve as a space to promote democracy?

Usher in transparency

One strategy that the new museum may adopt to aspire toward these goals is to display the entire collection of the National Museum. Or, at least as much of the collection as can be safely displayed — ensuring that irreplicable antiquities are not subjected to excess heat, cold drafts, humidity, and harsh light. This is a challenging task. If it is executed carefully, then it can allow the institution to begin dismantling hierarchies that have privileged certain objects as masterpieces and relegated others as lesser works and copies. Such a strategy can also establish that the meanings of artworks are not fixed but change at different moments of their lives, including the contexts in which they are exhibited. It may also promote accountability and make the difficult work of administering a premier cultural institution transparent to a broad public. Alongside, the new museum may emulate Charles Correa’s commitment to create accessible contrapuntal spaces in public buildings. Auditoria, courtyards, concert halls, and cafes can foster quietude and spark conversation.

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Alternatively, by forming alliances with other institutions and showcasing the connected history of India and the world, the new museum may aspire to help visitors become better informed citizens. One gallery might exhibit seals to highlight contacts among and between ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Rhytons and statuary explaining entanglements between Achaemenid Persepolis and Mauryan Pataliputra can be placed in a second gallery. A third gallery can house coins and portraits to exhibit how the Kushans who ruled over Mathura in the early centuries CE maintained ties with their nomadic clansmen in the Central Asian steppe. A fourth group of rooms can bring together textiles and wood carvings to narrate histories of traders moving between east Africa and Gujarat. A fifth gallery might showcase microarchitectural ensembles and leather puppets to reconstruct flows across the Bay of Bengal, and along pathways extending in an arc from the Deccan to the Arakan. A sixth suite of rooms might focus on albums of calligraphy and miniature painting to unravel forces that cleaved peoples of the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman Empires. And so on.

Laboratory for the future

A third strategy would be to think of the new museum as a laboratory ̥for the future, that is, as a sustainable and multi-purpose building dedicated to quarrying new histories and fostering fresh deliberations. In it, one suite of galleries featuring diverse everyday artifacts — sickles, pitchers, and phulkaris — may provoke a reflection of how a mosaic of villages and their farmlands were acquired by colonial authorities to build Lutyens’ Delhi. Another set of galleries exhibiting artifacts pointing to how minorities have attempted to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis majoritarian regimes may stimulate artists, researchers, and young people to gather, question assumptions, and develop new works.

These are only a few tactics. Certainly, they need to be refined or even rejected. However, it is clear that the question of how the North and South Block buildings will be quickly remodelled into the country’s largest museum that aspires to tell the story of India is too significant to assign to a few individuals.

Essential ponderings

Contemporary artists in collaboration with forward-looking museums in the country are already debating this question. Jitish Kallat’s minuscule painted-clay models of street violence safely housed in British-era vitrines in the Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum draw attention to historical narratives sanctified in public institutions and those that remain untold. Watercolours, oils, and mixed media works in Atul Dodiya’s 7000 Museums series exhibited in the same museum, give form to what a host of cultural institutions across India could look like and types of artifacts they may house. Following Kallat and Dodiya, let us contemplate and articulate what the past means to us and ask what of the past is worth saving and why. In the classroom, on the street, on the stage and screen. Such ponderings will also help us imagine how we might eventually gather responsibly at the new art museum on Raisina Hill to continue to craft a culture of democracy.

Nachiket Chanchani is an Associate Professor of South Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, U.S.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 9:49:10 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/art-museums-and-the-craft-of-democracy/article65345974.ece