At the end of the Sir Dorab Tata Gallery on the second floor of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, there’s a small, non-descript door that leads to a treasure. This is the archive room of the city museum, where a staff of five has been working for the last four years to collect and preserve documents, photographs and other materials related to the over 100-year history of the museum. “We have documents dating all the way back to the founding of the museum in 1905. This is the first of its kind institutional archive in India,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General of the museum.
The idea for creating the museum archive was one that Mukherjee had nursed for a long time, ever since he took charge in 2007. The work began as part of the Metro Museum Modernization Plan, after the required funds came in through a grant from the Ministry of Culture, and a suitable space was identified within the museum premises to house the archives. Armed with two scanners and a camera, the staff began creating a digital archive of the museum’s collections as well as its history. All the letters, accession cards, registers, exhibition slides, photographs and other material that had, over the years, been stored in different places around the museum, were identified and located. Some of the documents were in a fragile condition, owing to being handled and stored carelessly. These were conserved with the help of the museum’s conservation centre.
The process of finding, preserving and archiving the materials unearthed a number of interesting insights not just into the history of the building itself, but also revealed a lot about how it functioned and how exhibitions were organised. For example, some letters exchanged between the museum and Lady Navajbai Tata, widow of Sir Ratanji Tata, in the early 1920s, revealed that while the institution had very gratefully accepted the bequest of her late husband’s collection of paintings, decorative arts and textiles, it didn’t have the display cases in which to house them. Eventually, it was Lady Tata who had some made and sent to the museum where they are still in use today. Some documents, such as the museum’s original floor plan and old photographs reveal how much the building has changed over the years, both from inside and from the outside. A photograph taken in 1927, for instance, shows what is now the Sculpture Gallery, which was once the Brahmanical Gallery. The empty space below the Brahmanical Gallery’s high ceiling was later converted into a mezzanine, which now houses the Himalayan Art Gallery.
While building the archives, the staff also reached out to institutions around the world in their search for materials relevant to the history of the CSMVS. It was this way, that the museum was able to get a copy of a photograph from the Royal Institute of British Architects, which shows hospital beds in the space currently occupied by the Sculpture Gallery and offers a glimpse into the period from 1914 to 1922, when the building functioned as a military hospital. Mukherjee says, “In the museum, we are recording the histories of the collections we have, but we also had the desire to preserve the history of the museum itself, and the people who have been associated with it over the years.