Housing valuable facets from long ago

The closing decades of the 19th century saw a decision of the Governor of Madras, General Napier, spark off a debate in the then princely state of Travancore.


BUILT TO KEEP TIME: Within its preserves for future generations to enjoy and study

BUILT TO KEEP TIME: Within its preserves for future generations to enjoy and study  

The famous Napier Museum was built with a fair share of controversy surrounding its development. Actually it was not the visit of Napier per se that proved contentious but rather the decision, taken in 1857, to construct a museum in honour of the visiting dignitary. There was no consensus on how the museum would be constructed. What architectural style should it reflect?

Already there was much adverse comment among those who mattered in Travancore about the recently built government secretariat, an imposing edifice that was done in the Greco-Roman style. There were many who felt that those who built the secretariat had ignored the architecture styles and splendours of Travancore.

To cut a long story short, it was decided that the new museum to be built in the heart of the city would reflect elements of Indian architecture. Accordingly the old museum building was pulled down in 1874 and the new set up in its place in 1880. The architect for the new museum was Chisolm, the then principal of the School of Arts in Madras and the brain behind the design of the famous Connemera Library there.

Chisolm is said to have spent months studying in great detail the architecture of the Padmanabhapuram palace and that of other equally splendid buildings in Travancore and elsewhere in the country. The result was a splendid piece of architecture with a Venetian fountain in the forecourt, Venetian windows near the entrance, `projector' windows in Mughal style on the first floor, touches of Padmanabhapuram in the gables and what have you.

Today the 120-year-old museum is known the world over for its Chola bronze exhibits. The most famous of such exhibits is a statue of Lord Siva dancing with Sati on his shoulders.

According to many museum experts such a statue can only be found in the Napier museum and nowhere else. Another rare exhibit at the museum is a statue of Lord Vishnu; a `Chathurbaahu' idol done in `Panchaloha.' Similarly, visitors also marvel at the big `temple car', the `dwarapalakas' and the coins on display at the museum.

According to M. G. Sasibhooshan, member of the National Committee for Financial Assistance to Museums in India, the Napier Museum has the finest collections of anthropological exhibits next only perhaps to the Man museum in Bhopal. "If properly developed, the Napier Museum can become the best of its kind in the whole country. This museum is also noteworthy for its collection of stuffed birds," he says.

The Museum is indeed in the process of being refurbished; a Rs. 50 lakh project whose first phase has been completed. One part of the refurbishment work— the work of scientifically restoring the metal and wood exhibits that are showing 120 years worth of wear and tear— has been given to a Delhi-based NGO, INTACH. In the first phase of this work, about 60 exhibits including the Panchaloha Vishnu have been restored. The second phase of INTACH's work is scheduled to commence shortly.

Another component of the refurbishment project is to redesign the showcases housing the exhibits in enclosures that do not boast of any climate-control capabilities. Moreover, the showcases do not have proper lighting; in some cases very small exhibits have been placed inside large cases. Once the refurbishment is complete each exhibit will have its own climate-controlled showcase with a quantity of silica gel to act as a dehumidifier.

There will be thematic and chronological continuity to the exhibits each of which would be `highlighted' using special lighting. Each exhibit would also be placed on a special pedestal to enhance visual continuity in the museum.

One thing that proved a source of delight for museum authorities was the discovery that the 120-year-old building was found to be structurally sound during a evaluation carried out by a team from the IIT Chennai. Sure, the team did discover leaks on the roof, the rectification of which led to a detailed architectural study of each reaper on the roof. For the students of history and anthropology, though, the Napier Museum continues to be a cornucopia of scholarly delights, all its shortcomings notwithstanding.

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