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Indian Museums

August 26, 2019

This post comes to us from Monica Barnes, a HARN administrator and the lead editor of Andean Past.

“India is demanding”, a friend told us last February before my husband and I left for our first trip to that country. Ok. Demanding. But in what ways? People warned me that India is terribly crowded. About eighteen percent of everyone on earth lives there. That’s got to cause some serious stress. But can it be worse than Midtown Manhattan in the evening rush? (It is) Then there is the poverty, deep and wide enough to cause an existential crisis in people from prosperous parts of the world. About two thirds of the Indian population is destitute by any reasonable international standard. However, I’ve seen some profound want in Latin America without becoming an avatar of Mother Teresa. Then there is the intense air pollution. A veil of haze covers the entire country. For a long time India argued that is a necessary corollary of much needed development, but I think attitudes are changing.

Combine all this with the slight or profound sense of disorientation that develops when visiting a country utterly foreign to oneself. Yes, India is demanding, but utterly fascinating, too.

I’m fortunate to be associated with a major museum, the American Museum of Natural History. So, naturally, when I’m traveling I take a busman’s holiday and visit museums. There is always so much to enjoy and learn, not just in terms of the contents of displays, but in museology as well.

I have to confess that I hit the Indian museums cold, without knowing much about them or the art and archaeology they present. Fortunately, my husband and companion was somewhat better informed. We started with the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Founded in 1814 by the Asiatic Society, it is the oldest museum in the country. It has galleries devoted to art, anthropology, archaeology, and natural sciences. It is housed in a “legacy building”, meaning a colonial structure, in this case a large, white compound of courtyards with open arcades.

Figure 1 Indian Museum Kolkata courtyardFigure 1: Indian Museum Kolkata, courtyard

Through these arcades birds fly. Arriving early in the day, we observed a man removing spots of guano from the floor. Is someone assigned the task of cleaning droppings from the ancient statues? The birds are bad conservators, but they lend the place a peaceful, meditative air. They come and go as they wish, while numerous dogs, sacred cows, and a few monkeys wander outside.

In one important respect, many of the great European and North American museums differ from those in Latin America, Asia, and, I presume, Africa. Institutions like the Louvre, the British Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History were chartered to study and present world culture, and, in the case of the latter, the entire natural world. Outside Europe and North America, almost all museums follow nationalist principles. That is, they offer glimpses of their national, or perhaps regional or local, cultures and, with few exceptions, do not address the rest of the world. This can make for collections and related activities of great depth, but little breadth. An institutional goal is to instill proprietary and patriotic pride by presenting the glories of the nation. This is the case with the four Indian museums we visited. Nationalism is emphasized by the fact that non-Indian visitors pay much higher admission fees, except at one private museum.

India has 24 official languages, including English. Museums have artifact labels in English and at least one other tongue. However, these are minimalist. If you don’t walk in the door with good prior knowledge of Indian history, culture, and geography you won’t develop it simply by exploring the museums. You cannot depend on the bookstalls, either. A very limited number of publications are on offer, but these, at least, are inexpensive.

In general, the museology is old-fashioned. Forget about interactive displays, or multi-media presentations. We have objects lined up in vitrines. Make of them what you will and try to maintain your attention as long as you can. Fortunately, JATAN, a national digitization project, is underway and coming to the rescue. Many objects can be studied through this on-line, open-access catalogue. At the time of writing, 4144 ornaments, 4399 tools, and 6060 coins from the Indian Museum can be viewed with their catalogue information. This resource is being expanded rapidly.

Having mentioned these shortcomings, I can focus on the unique and extraordinary. Given my own interests in art, archaeology, crafts, and ethnography, I skipped the natural history displays. At the Indian Museum, as with the others we visited, the quality of the objects shown is extraordinary. Particularly strong are the Bharhut Gallery displaying early Buddhist architectural sculpture, the Bronze Gallery with lovely Buddhist and Hindu religious images, and the magnificent Gandhara Gallery housing second century C.E. Buddhist sculpture made under Hellenistic influence. The large L.Archaeology Gallery shows the evolution of sculpture in India.


Figure 2 Ganesha Indian Museum KolkataFigure 2: Ganesha, Indian Museum, Kolkata

Figure 3 contemporary miniature on a vintage postcard (2)Figure 3: Durga, Sheep-headed Goddess, Indian Museum, Kolkata

Here one must remember that what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan were once in the sphere of greater “India”, so works from those countries are often found in Indian museums. Indian miniature paintings are arranged in chronological order to present the development of this art form. Such paintings are still being executed. I was able to purchase some lovely contemporary ones at the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum (see below). Textiles, especially nineteenth century ones, are well represented and nicely conserved. Archaeologists have a rare opportunity to see a large selection of Harrapan artifacts.

Figure 4 contemporary miniature on a vintage postcard (1)Figure 4: Contemporary Miniature painted on a vintage postcard

Indian cultural sites have accessibility problems. That is, if you cannot walk up flights of stairs, often without handrails, you will be limited in what you can see. The Indian Museum has a freight lift to the upper galleries. You can use it, but you won’t find it without staff help.

The next museum we visited was the National Museum in Delhi, the Indian capital Time constraints prevented us from visiting the many museums in that city dedicated to various deceased members of the Gandhi and Nehru families. The National Museum (Delhi) has a lot in common with the Indian Museum (Kolkata). It is heavy on lovely Indian religious sculpture (Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain) and miniature paintings. The focal point of the Buddhist gallery is a shrine containing bones believed to be those of the Buddha himself. You may see pilgrims offering prayers there. Although not all the museum’s holdings are Indian, part of its stated mission is “to serve as epitome of national identity”.

There is a hall devoted to Central Asian antiquities gathered in the early twentieth century by Sir Aurel Stein during his expeditions to the “Silk Roads” and another dedicated to Indian jewelry throughout the centuries. For descriptions of other permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions see the website.

Given the general lack of facilities for people with mobility problems, it is refreshing to have a tactile gallery where individuals with low vision can feel reproductions of typical objects. The museum website promises that special needs are being addressed.

At the time of our visit we were unable to see many of the collections because of extensive reinstallations. These included several hundred pre-Columbian objects, the only such collection normally on public display in Asia. Also closed for reinstallation was the Anthropology Gallery, strong on the material culture of India’s northeastern states and traditional Indian musical instruments, and the Textile Gallery.

Figure 5 publication on Nazca pottery in the National Museum, DelhiFigure 5: Publication on Nasca pottery in the National Museum, Delhi

Two other Delhi museums, both dedicated to Indian crafts, share a very different tone. The private  Sanskriti Museums on the southern edge of the city are composed of pavilions, each dedicated to a particular topic, surrounded by gardens displaying large ceramic pieces. The museums are part of the Sanskriti Kendra, a foundation-supported institution dedicated to preserving Indian traditional arts. There are ceramics, block printing, enameling, and general studios as well as exhibit and meeting halls, and accommodation for resident artists. Admission is free.

Figure 6 ceramics in the grounds of the Sanscriti MuseumFigure 6: Ceramics in the grounds of the Sanskriti Museum

The Museum of Everyday Art highlights objects in daily use exhibiting excellent craftsmanship (many created by women). The exuberant Museum of Indian Terracotta has both indoor and outdoor displays. I was lucky enough to see all this with a man from Orissa who described his mother and grandmother’s involvement in traditional house decoration, as displayed. The Museum of Indian Textiles originated as an individual’s collection and does not attempt to be comprehensive, but it is interesting.

Figure 7 Wall painting Sanscriti MuseumFigure 7: Wall painting, Sanskriti Museum, Delhi

Closer to central Delhi is the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, commonly known as the Crafts Museum, and run by India’s Ministry of Textiles  (Note that the website is not kept current). Not surprisingly, it houses India’s largest collection of cloth. This, too, follows an in indoor/outdoor format, with a whole village reproduced.

Figure 8 National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum DelhiFigure 8: National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, Delhi

The collections of folk sculpture, textiles, and decorative architectural elements are particularly strong. There is a “contemporary Indian restaurant” on-site, as well as an area for crafts demonstrations. This is a great place to shop, because the artists demonstrating their work have some to sell.

Figure 9 Doorways National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum IndiaFigure 9: Doorways, National Handcrifts and Handloom Museum, Delhi

Like much else in India, museums are “demanding”, too. While anyone probably could enjoy the displays, prior knowledge of Indian art, history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, and crafts would definitely enhance one’s experiences. The museums are demanding physically, as well as intellectually, with few seats in the galleries, or anywhere else, and only one out of the four I visited has a café. Sometimes wheelchairs are available, but check ahead of time if you need one. You can count on clean “wash rooms”, though, and some extraordinary collections.

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