The first non-British head of the British Museum since 1866, Hartwig Fischer has received much acclaim for his emphasis on cultural pluralism and redisplay of the permanent collection at the museum to make it more representative of global interconnectedness. He was in Delhi recently to discuss the conceptualisation and execution of the exhibition “India and the World: a History in Nine Stories”, a collaboration between Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Delhi’s National Museum and the British Museum. Featuring over 200 objects, the showcase highlights nine seminal moments in the history of India and parallel events in the world. In an interview, Hamburg-born Fischer talks about the need for cooperation between museums, the importance of taking a stance, and engaging with the audience through storytelling.
How was it to choose these key moments in Indian history, and represent over two million years with around 200 objects?
You look at the history of India and South Asia and think about the key moments in history — political, religious, social, cultural — and then you look at the key moments in other parts of the world, because our ambition was to talk about India in the global context. We, of course, had to consider if we had objects that would represent that key moment. We thought about the Indian audience, something that would be especially relevant for India, so that people from the country can learn about their own history much more than what they would from a textbook.
You have spoken about cultural pluralism and the need for museums to engage with the audience through storytelling. Is that an important objective of museums in the present day?
There is a lot more cooperation between museums today. Interconnections between cultures is much more highlighted today. Seventy five per cent of our visitors come from abroad, we have 58 nations in our staff, and invite colleagues from the world over to work with us. Interconnectedness is being addressed by museums. Which does not mean that we don’t have counter movements, governments do interfere to push ahead with nationalist agendas. There are some examples in Europe of that too. When it comes to how museums communicate with its audience, it is best to come up with compelling narratives.
In response to the Pegida movement, when you were the director of the Dresden State Art Collections (2012-2016), you had put banners stating “This is a house of foreigners”. Do you think it is important for museums to take a stance?
You can’t generalise that. When I put up that banner with my colleagues, we were just stating the obvious. Dresdon is one of the most visited sites in Germany because for centuries it was very open towards the world. We said, ‘what do you call a place where you have objects from all over the world’ — Africa, India, America; they started collecting Indian miniature paintings in the 17th century. It is a big house for the foreigners. We are all proud of that. Museums should highlight these aspects. You don’t have to go out on the streets in the form of demonstrations but it is important to make people understand how important connections are. It is important for a museum to be that space of reflection, contemplation and discovery. If you feel there is something that needs to be said, there are so many different ways of saying it.
How was it to work on the segment on colonialism in this exhibition?
We quickly understood that both sides absolutely wanted this to be a part of the exhibition. Indian history is much grander than the colonial experience, but it was obvious since this is closer to our own present, this needed to be addressed, especially in an exhibition that was conceived together by Britain and India. We tried to show different aspects, not just concerning India but also concerning other parts of the world, and highlight how countries from different continents moved out of it and regained independence. Objects, photographs and documents tell global stories of states gaining independence, and setting out on their own.
What is your repatriation policy? India too wants some of the objects that travelled to the UK pre Independence.
It’s not a lot of countries that are demanding objects from the museum. The British museum thinks it has to speak openly about how these things came to the museum and how this collection was created out of different passionate interests. We need to be clear about the role that colonialism played. That is not the only reason for this museum to exist. An encyclopedic museum does research on where objects come from, how they enter the museum, and what it meant for communities where these objects came from. For the British Museum to exist, that the objects stay at the museum is a prerequisite. The museum is at the forefront of museums with regard to sharing and thinking of ways of working together.
I believe some objects that were part of the exhibition in Mumbai have not travelled to Delhi.
Some objects could not travel but we have included other new objects. What is great about the exhibition is that you find rare and precious objects. Either it is a work of a great artist like Rembrandt, or a simple artefact like an Indian cooking pot found in Siraf in Iran. It is a simple object but tells the story of people from India going to set up shop there, story of trade, migration, or both. There are rare inscriptions, unique drawings, and mass produced objects like coins.