Seven-year-old Ravi holds his father’s hand and walks into the gates of the Indian Museum, Kolkata, leading to a huge garden. A look of awe fills his tiny face as his eyes take in the sheer grandeur of the building that makes his little heart throb with excitement. He looks up to his smiling father, who mirrors his enthusiasm. “I had come here with your grandfather, 35 years ago,” says his father staring at the majestic view. That’s what museums are—gatekeepers of the past, the present and the future, carefully housing all that’s brought forward human civilisation today. Whether situated in pristinely-clipped botanical gardens, or wedged between tall industrial buildings in a bustling city street, museums have been destinations of immortal bricks of history.
The recently-concluded ‘India and the World’ exhibition in Mumbai museum—displaying 210 objects, including the ones dating back to 170 million years from 28 museums across the world—shows the renewed interest in Indian antiquity. Vinod Daniel, the chair of AusHeritage, Australia’s cultural heritage network, and member of the International Council of Museums, Paris, who was in India last week, said the country has the capacity to create at least one world-class museum in every state. He believes museums can involve public; for example, he envisages a museum displaying local bird species with photographs contributed by people.
“Government museums are boring, non-interactive and ill-maintained. We need to go by the times. Augmented reality is the name of the game now. What we need to understand is people are a part of art,” says AP Sreethar, primarily a painter who has been on a museum-building spree for the past two years. With 23 museums to his credit, including the Click Art Museum, Vintage Camera Museum, Live Art Museum in India, Malaysia, Singapore and USA, he is now launching his latest, One-Minute Wonder, in Mumbai this December.
At the Click Art Museum, one can take a selfie with a gorilla, fight with Jackie Chan, row in Venice, etc. Giving rise to an optical illusion, Sreethar has crafted 3D paintings that invite guests to actively participate with the painting. The Live Art Museum houses replicas of famous personalities such as MS Dhoni, Shirdi Sai Baba, Amitabh Bachchan, Mother Teresa, Michael Jackson, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Chaplin. It is the first silicon museum in the world. The Vintage Camera Museum he set up in Chennai is designed in the form of a Rollei camera, and the entry is shaped like a lens. Around 1,000 cameras and a rare collection of photographs are on display here.
One-Minute Wonder is grouped in three segments: around the world in one minute, around Singapore in one minute and African jungle in one minute. It promises to send permanent videos to all its guests. Sreethar promises to come up with more categories in future.To reinvent themselves, museums are trying to make their space as composite as possible with information, events and cafés, outdoor art and landscaping, flexible gallery space, and what have you. From book launches to interactive sessions, museums are rethinking the physical plan to cater to a more diverse public, while staying buoyant financially. They are conducting events of all kinds—from ancient board games, exclusive exhibitions dedicated to famous artists not well-known in India, to conducting musical concerts.
The appointment of Rajesh Purohit, who earlier headed Allahabad Museum, as the director of Indian Museum, Kolkata, the oldest museum in India, has brought back focus on how we look at our artefacts in the oldest museum of India. Purohit, who introduced innovations such as digital 3D version of rare statues and artefacts in Allahabad, aims to convert the Indian Museum into a happening hub. “Museums can play a leading role in bolstering the creative economy, locally and regionally. They also act as platforms for debate and discussion, tackling complex societal issues and encouraging public participation,” says Purohit. Allahabad Museum showcases the second largest collection of 72,000 artefacts in the country after its Kolkata counterpart that has around two lakh artefacts.
In India, you will find a museum for just about every mind. Parallel to its diverse flora and fauna, people and culture, heritage and art, there is an applauding number of institutions that have stood tall across the country. From the motorcycling café, Bengaluru, and Shell Museum in Chennai, to the open courtyard housing tribal art and mural paintings of award-winning artists in Purkhauti Muktangan, Raipur—over the years, every state has built its own museum. From the doll museum of Norbulingka Institute in Mcleodganj, Dharamsala, to the Mayong Central Museum, Assam—museums today are also opting for the thematic trend.
These new thematic museums tell stories of present times for generations to come. For example, Vechaar Museum, Ahmedabad, houses over 4,000 utensils—1,000-year-old jugs to modern glass utensils. It covers every type of metal from bronze and brass to German silver. You will find antique paandan, brass betel leaf box from Madhya Pradesh, or even a dhoopdan, incense burner from Saurashtra in Gujarat. Most of the collections come from the southern part of India.
For a quirky take, visit the Brain Museum, Bengaluru, located on the premises of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences.
A brainchild of Dr S K Shankar, head of the Department of Neuropathy, the museum displays brains of many shades and moods in glass bottles and formalin jars. It might seem macabre to some, but for those who have an interest, there are brains of those who have met with an accident in contradiction to those who had memory loss. From a scientist’s brain to an artist, from rats to ducks—it is an education on the brain. And then there is Broom Museum in Jodhpur, also known as Arna Jharna. It is a tribute to folklorist and Padma Bhushan recipient Komal Kothari. It showcases around 160 handmade brooms sourced from different parts of Rajasthan produced by rural communities. In addition, the museum also conducts interactive workshops related to folk culture and traditional knowledge.
Down south, Dakshina Chitra in Tamil Nadu is an exciting cross-cultural living museum of art, architecture, lifestyles, crafts and performing arts.
A project of Madras Craft Foundation, it was opened to public in December 1996. It has a collection of 18 authentic historical houses with contextual exhibitions in each house. These houses bought and reconstructed at Dakshina Chitra had been given for demolition by their owners. The authentic homes in a vernacular style are purchased, taken down, transported and reconstructed by artisans of the regions from where the houses came.
Former director of the National Gallery, London, and the British Museum, Neil MacGregor wrote A History of the World in 100 Objects where he interconnected, from the ancient to the modern. He begins with one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands—a chopping tool from Olduvai Gorge, an important paleoanthropological site in Tanzania—and ends with podcasts which characterise the world we live in today. “The book is almost like a turning point of how museums must be interpreted today—as a shifting kaleidoscope of previous civilisations leading to painting the present evolution,” remarks Jayanta Sengupta, curator, Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata.
He believes today’s youth engage with history in a different language. And it is therefore the duty of museums to reinvent themselves. His example: “A wooden replica of a boat used in the 18th century captioned ‘a boat made in Kerala, 16th century’ alone would make no sense. One is looking forward to knowing the connect. Let that be ‘this boat was used for trade with Portia’. Curators all over the world are working to adapt to existing trends.”
Much ahead of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Bindeshwar Pathak—a humanist and social reformer—had made an impact on awareness of sanitation by building Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in Delhi. It has a rare collection of facts, pictures, and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC till date.
According to UNESCO, the number of museums around the world has increased from 22,000 in 1975 to 55,000 today. Much as the structures have been erected, they have to adapt to the dynamic times that the current era witnesses. Kamalika Bose, consulting expert at the International Council on Monuments and Sites, offers solutions to how these repository of cultures and objects can be turned into more constructive narratives of the past. She says, “It is like the mountain coming to Mohammad. One has to showcase some of its objects to draw the audience.”
Purohit has gone a step further and has cleaned up the street along the Indian Museum in Kolkata and installed crafts stalls for visitors. This, besides attracting people, would also be a source of employment for many. Bose says, “How will a layman even relate to a Greco Roman head or some weapons shelved on a glass panel? One doesn’t feel the connection until it is put in a way that makes them feel emotionally connected to their past. For example, the Smithsonian has become a lens to the rest of America.”
It is perhaps not well known that all major museums display only about eight per cent or even less of their total objects so that there are enough artefacts for rotation for visual change. Some are also sent for repair and maintenance. There are certain objects that are constant and serve as the USP of the museum. “At Victoria Memorial, 12 per cent of the objects are put on display. A good addition would be to show a few objects that are not displayed in the gallery digitally. This also gives the viewers a chance to see the range of objects that the museum shelters,” Sengupta adds.
Museums today face some major ground-level challenges. There is a dearth of staff and participation of the young. Sengupta rues the fact that the enrolment in universities for museum studies is sparse and the course work too is outdated. MA in museology has not churned out desirable candidates. This calls for attention. A recent trend shows hiring of new field resources, those from mass communication, digital humanities, English literature and so on.
Siddhant Shah, founder of Access for All, who recently completed his MA in Heritage Management from the University of Kent (UK) and Athens University of Economics and Business (Greece), quips, “Had students been taken more often to museums as part of their lesson studies, it would not just create more influx but also bring about a change in the way education is perceived today.”
Bose adds that most museums in India have a staff crunch and urges that youth should be encouraged to volunteer. Sengupta assures that Victoria Memorial will welcome young students who are yet to decide their career options and are eager to explore.
Maintaining museums is not easy, as saving heritage from destruction—both manmade, including terrorism and vandalism, and natural such as earthquakes and floods—poses a serious challenge. A report of the Prime Minister-led National Disaster Management Authority highlights threat to Delhi-based National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai, the Victoria Memorial Museum and the Indian Museum in Kolkata, and the Allahabad Museum.
History of museum landscape is not simply a design pedigree; it is an expression of how museums are located in their communities, physically and ideologically. It speaks to each museum’s unique calculation of the exchange of social, political, cultural capital as well as the economic context that’s exchanged, steered and communicated in and through the landscape.
The Famous & the Quirky
Indian Museum Kolkata
The concept of having a museum arose in 1796 after members of the Asiatic Society demanded a place where man-made and natural objects could be assimilated, cared for and displayed. Nathaniel Wallich, a surgeon and botanist of Danish origin who settled in the Danish settlement near then Calcutta, proposed the forming of a museum in a letter dated February 2, 1814, to the Council of the Asiatic Society. The Society supported the proposal, thus establishing the first museum of India—the Indian Museum—in the same year with Wallich as its first curator.
Established in 1851, it is the second oldest museum in India. Rich in archaeological and numismatic collections, it has the largest collection of Roman antiquities outside Europe. Many of the buildings within the museum campus are over 100 years old. Built in Indo-Saracenic style, it houses rare works of artists such as Raja Ravi Varma.
Museum of Toilets Delhi
It boasts a rare collection of beautiful poems related to toilet and its usage. With exhibits dating back to 3000 BC, the museum has fascinating displays of reproduction of ancient chamber pots, Victorian toilet seats and even toilets made of gold that were once used by Roman Emperors. There are also models of the low-cost biodegradable toilets that Sulabh is building in rural areas
and poor neighbourhoods.
Tribal Museum Bhopal
At the epic Janjaatiya Sangrahalaya or Tribal Museum located in Bhopal, the world of indigenous tribes is depicted with authentic skill and finesse. Inaugurated in 2013, the museum showcases historical and cultural narratives depicting different facets of tribes inhabiting Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Sculpted and styled by artists and craftsmen, hailing from remote corners of the state, the museum is nothing short of a ‘communication tool’, disseminating beliefs and traditions of the indigenous people.
Five Indian Museums Among Asia’s Best 25
Hall of Fame Leh
Commemorates the Indian Army’s role in Ladakh—from helping with cloudburst relief in 2010 to the high-altitude battles fought with Pakistan during the 20th century.
Bagore ki Haveli Udaipur Built in the 18th century, the palace has over 100 rooms displaying costumes and modern art. It also pre serves an example of Mewar painting on the walls of the queen’s chamber.
Victoria Memorial Hall Kolkata Representing the majestic British architecture, Victoria Memorial Hall stands today as a veritable icon of the City of Joy. It was envisaged by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of British India, as a memorial to the deceased Queen Victoria.
Salar Jung Museum Hyderabad
The art museum located at Darushifa is one of the three National Museums of India and one of the largest museums in the world. The museum’s collection was sourced from the property of the Salar Jung family. Jaisalmer War Museum Jaisalmer Conceptualised to display India’s rich military history. It aims to promote greater awareness of the sacrifice made by the armed forces. Source: Trip Advisor