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Culture, increasingly fractured and unplanned

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We have been given to understand from the publicly known plans for the “Central Vista Redevelopment Project”, that the National Museum of India is to occupy what are currently the South Block offices of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of External Affairs, as well as the North Block offices of the Home and Finance Ministries. These buildings were designed by Herbert Baker. The Parliament House building designed by Edwin Lutyens is to be turned into another museum, apparently a ‘museum of democracy’. The national capital could, in that case, potentially have a grand plaza of three extraordinary interconnected museums in the vicinity of the Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. What a spectacular statement they would make to the people of India and the rest of the world.

The problem is that we would have to wait for the North and South Blocks to be emptied for the Museum to move there. The new residences and offices of the Prime Minister and the Vice-President of India are to be positioned at the bottom of Raisina Hill, sandwiching the cultural plaza between the most high security premises in the country. The approach via Rajpath will be closed, and restricted access to this public space is inevitable whenever there is any movement of very important persons.

 

There was a method to why Lutyens arranged plots for the four cultural buildings on Queensway (Janpath), which intersected strategically at a safe distance away from Rashtrapati Bhavan on Kingsway (Rajpath). Janpath had the plots for the Archaeological Survey of India, the National Museum, the area that later became the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the intellectual repository of India — the National Archives. Together, they formed a cultural district, set within public gardens, an avenue where you looked up Raisina Hill in awe at Rashtrapati Bhavan on the one side, as you looked toward the historic Purana Qila beyond India Gate on the other.

Disaggregation as leitmotif

That kind of vision of urban planning for a single, linked cultural district seems to have been tossed out entirely. The IGNCA can now no longer utilise its open spaces for pavilions welcoming the people of India. It was a fine idea to have the land for the many living cultural traditions of India and their documentation at IGNCA just across the road from the classical or historical art in the National Museum. The educational arm of the Museum, called the National Museum Institute, deemed a University, has already been relocated to Noida while the Archaeological Survey of India’s prized collections have been relegated to Greater Noida. The National Museum’s collections may also have to be split up: some in the Red Fort, some in storage, some awaiting their new home. Disaggregation, rather than unification of India’s cultures and communities seems to be the leitmotif.

The aim of a museum of history, especially one that goes by the title of a National Museum, is to be able to speak to its public and speak to the wider world about the history of India. In the past few decades, redefining a ‘national’ project has become necessary in a world where families and identities are hyphenated. People are Indian while simultaneously belonging to some other part of the world. Speakers of multiple languages, Indians may also be from language groups — Punjabi or Sindhi, Nepali or Bhutia, Tamil or Tibetan — that are spoken by communities split between different countries. Our national identity has never been more this and that. The relocation of our National Museum provides an opportunity to think through its narrative at a decisive moment when India needs to see what it is projecting through its display, and be aware of whom it is leaving out, or relegating to different parts of the city. Aggregation of the differences then, would have been a more advisable approach.

Editorial | Artless and heartless: On Central Vista project

The public’s expectations of what they hope to learn from a visit to a museum is quite different nowadays to the intentions with which museums in India were created. Our history museums on the other hand serve to provide information as deemed appropriate by archaeologists of the early 20th century: with galleries divided into old-fashioned colonial themes such as Buddhist or Hindu art, Islamic art, or, separated by material: painting, bronze and stone for instance, rather than seeing them as historically contemporaneous. Gone are the days when objects could be lined up with the pithiest labels identifying the object’s iconography, its date and the dynasty whose reign it may have been made in. Even history textbooks have moved away from examining the succession of political dynasties to social processes instead. Museums must serve the requirement of telling multiple histories from varied perspectives for diverse audiences.

Handle with care

What does shifting a museum practically mean? The National Museum contains fragile Harappan terracottas, the ashes of the Buddha and sculptures as fine as filigree. At the same time it has sculptures that weigh many tonnes requiring a feat of engineering to shift. There are bronzes: from the iconic “Dancing Girl” to Chola bronzes, coins and more coins of gold, silver, copper and bronze from every epoch of Indian history and precious jewellery that was from the collections of the Nizam of Hyderabad. There are entire walls of painted ancient caves from Chinese Central Asia brought to India by Sir Aurel Stein, and there are grand Egyptian stone statues, and in fact entire wooden chariots from South Indian temples. There are extraordinary Mesoamerican ceramics from the Heeramaneck collection and delicate textiles from every part of South Asia and, not to forget, the endless rare manuscripts and paintings on birch-bark, palm-leaf and paper. The sheer scale of arranging for the packing and moving each of these items will present a logistical nightmare.

Over the years that I was employed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I had the opportunity to observe how aspects of that museum’s award-winning refurbishment were undertaken. The museum immediately employed more qualified conservation personnel and trained its existing staff. Every single object had to have its own special packing case and fragile objects had data loggers within climate-controlled cases. Each object was given a barcode number which was connected to an online location index that allowed curators, the conservators and researchers such as me access to the collections even while they were in storage. More importantly, they allowed the inventory to be safeguarded. Insurance indemnification also demands that every object has its own file documenting its condition at the time of packing to compare it against when it was reopened.

Who will author and assess shifts in the condition of our objects before and after the move? Vacancies for 92 posts at the National Museum had to be closed a couple of years ago because finding qualified specialists in India could not be completed for years on end. As per its own documents, the museum has more than 2,06,000 objects but the official Museums of India website still only has a fraction of the collection on it. If a museum is a repository of our inheritance, then should we not know what we own before it is stored away?

 

The choices ahead

Last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shut down to undertake a similar move. Rebuilding that museum with a comparable square footage is costing over $750 million. Refurbishing old buildings such as the North and South Blocks to provide the facilities necessary costs money and takes time. It requires exceptional skill, and few architects have the necessary experience in adapting historic buildings for narrating current and future curatorial concerns, the movement of objects and people, fitting them with state-of-the-art storage, security, offices, lighting, climate control and improving their floor loading capacities. The largest Pallava and Chola sculptures in the National Museum weigh many tonnes obviously putting stress on heritage buildings. Worryingly, in a recent appeal made to the Supreme Court of India to encourage the shift of India’s top offices out of North and South Blocks, the government’s lawyers argued that the buildings were structurally unsafe and “are ill-equipped to meet even the basic fire and earthquake safety norms”. Will they, then, be safe enough to house our country’s greatest wealth and treasures? When will the personnel for this be hired? How long will it take and how much will it cost to make them safe?

Comment | Beyond the Central Vista verdict, key questions

None of these details is publicly available yet. Perhaps the courts and Parliament will decide it is not wise to split an entire cultural district at this moment in time. Or, perhaps, this move offers us an unprecedented opportunity to build our nation’s capacities in the field of museum management like never before. Either way, the epitome of our collective wealth as a nation is in the balance.

Naman P. Ahuja is a curator and Professor of Art History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the co-editor of ‘The Arts and Interiors of Rashtrapati Bhavan: Lutyens and Beyond’


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