Museums without meaning

On a visit to Kolkata last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened an exhibition; inaugurated a sound and light show at Howrah Bridge; and announced that five art museums in Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Srinagar will be upgraded to international standards. His announcement follows a spate of declarations. Over the next few years, North and South Block buildings that flank Rashtrapati Bhavan will be converted into museums, a national experiential archaeology museum will open at Vadnagar, and a hundred new experiential museums may be built across the country.

These announcements leave elementary questions unanswered. Where does the government plan to build new museums? How will objects be sourced to be displayed in them? Who will staff these museums? What narratives will be recounted in new institutions and those that are to be renovated? All we know from officials is that they will be stunning spaces modelled on the Acropolis Museum in Athens and other world-class museums.

A striking contrast

Good art museums worldwide share several characteristics. At their heart are commitments to serve as stewards of cultural common wealth, ensure that objects in their care are lawfully held, and promote research into objects with an aim of deepening public knowledge of the human experience. They also strive to acquire and occasionally deaccession objects without boosting illegal trade in such artefacts. Club Atlético in Buenos Aires and the Topography of Terror in Berlin, both located at excavated sites of detention and torture, are examples of thoughtful experiential archaeological museums. They use trenches, exhumed artefacts, and testimonies to turn visitors variously into witnesses of open wounds, observers of the meticulous evidence-gathering work of archaeologists, and informed participants in struggles for social justice.

Consider, in contrast, experiments with truth at Rajkot in Gujarat. As dust settles on artefacts in the city’s Watson Museum that hold intricate histories of colonial Saurashtra, Alfred High School has reopened its doors as the Mahatma Gandhi Museum. In one gallery, visitors encounter the “scenario in India when Gandhiji came back from South Africa in 1915.” This takes the form of a collage of doctored, uncredited, and untitled images of events that did not occur that year. One image in the collage is based on Felice Beato’s photograph of an execution held in Lucknow during the Revolt of 1857-58, another on Willoughby Hooper’s photograph of victims of the Madras Famine of 1876-78 at a relief camp, and a third on A.G.E. Newland’s photograph of junior British officers lounging in Burma around 1892. Elsewhere in this museum, Madame Tussaud-style sculptures take the place of archival prints, and florid banners replace personal papers.

From what is publicly known of the government’s deliberations on founding an Indian Institute of Heritage and Conservation it is unclear whether such an establishment will remedy the situation. The proposed institution seems to be little more than bringing existing organisations under a new umbrella. If the proposed institution is to make a real difference, then it must partner with educational institutions across the country to foster a widespread interest in the historian’s craft. It should also draw on the expertise of those visually attuned humanists and social scientists who separate scholarship from spectacle and listen to voices of persons marginalised on account of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or religion.

The meaning of heritage

Furthermore, before new museums and overhauled galleries open their doors to the public, as Indians we all need to reflect on what heritage means to us. Is heritage something that we have somehow received in sealed containers? Or is heritage a material, or even an intangible trace, of a past reformed by its contact with manifold individuals who have handled it since its initial creation? If so, how will placing heritage in vitrines and vestibules alter identities and values? In probing these questions, we might want to learn from historians who have written on the politics of exhibition, nationalism, and religious revivalism.

We may also want to imbibe from the work of skilled hands. At the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, curators are destabilising received narratives by juxtaposing artefacts crafted in the colonial period with site-specific contemporary artworks. At Amritsar’s Partition Museum, teams are telling many sides of human stories that accompanied the birth of two nations. At the Jadunath Bhavan Museum in Kolkata, not only has the architectural fabric of a scholar’s residence been preserved but space created to house endangered archives that hold the promise of writing histories of the metropolis, from the ground up.

Finally, a growing number of monuments across the country are being illuminated every night. This new development sequesters monuments from surroundings and condenses complex architectural fabrics into spectacular facades, well-suited for serving as backdrops against which visitors might pose for selfies. Sanchi Stupa, Rani ki Vav, Red Fort, a temple at Hampi, and a few other buildings have begun to be printed on our banknotes. These photographic and printed images are vicariously bringing millions into daily contact with a few iconic sites. Meanwhile, innumerable other places of archaeological and historical significance standing across India are slowly slipping away from our collective consciousness.

Forward-thinking master plans for the preservation and interpretation of numerous sites have not been articulated — or at least not been publicly released. Is this because these sites hold narratives that the government is reluctant to recognise? Or because they hold histories that government archaeologists are unable to unearth? We also need to train an army of historians to uncover and write new cultural histories of India that demonstrate how every artefact and architectural ensemble is a receptacle of incredible true stories, or, if you will, histories of resilience and resistance, adaptations and aspirations of individuals and communities. When we demand the retrieval, recording, and narration of these histories, then we will all be able to critically appreciate the wonder that was India — a museum without walls.

Nachiket Chanchani is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, U.S.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 11:26:00 AM |

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