The people’s museum

Perhaps 2016, hopefully, will see the beginning of a redress of the problems faced by museums and other stakeholders of culture.

Written by Naman P. Ahuja | Updated: January 13, 2016 6:16 am
Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, Bamiyan Buddhas, afghanistan, Palmyra, tunisia, delhi metro, mehrauli, chandni chowk, indian express columns Stories of religiously motivated censorship on art in the name of offending someone are not uncommon.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 emboldened extremists to destroy more art and heritage. Nimrud and Hatra, the great historical sites of ancient Mesopotamia, then Palmyra, and the killing of tourists and staff at Bardo museum in Tunisia bear testimony. A heritage site attracts the attention of extremists for ignominious worldwide propaganda and spreading panic. These efforts are also to be seen as the erasure of history and the reshaping of identity. In India, too, art and museums are similarly targeted by self-styled keepers of legacy and public conscience. Stories of religiously motivated censorship on art in the name of offending someone are not uncommon.

Perhaps 2016, hopefully, will see the beginning of a redress of the problems faced by museums and other stakeholders of culture. Attention is drawn to three critical areas of concern: The role of museums, integrating urban development and archaeology, and changing those laws that may have been relevant once but are now counterproductive. What makes museums and historical sites, classical literature and the arts, libraries and archives all the more vulnerable is neglect in the face of development. 2015 saw India continue its development agenda apace. With greater urbanisation and industry, land use raises competing claims with little regard to what lies beneath, and almost no assessment of the intangible losses that lie above ground. Increasing globalisation and urbanisation lead to a fear of homogenisation — cultural and archaeological contexts are disturbed forever. Where will all the people seeking to inform their children of their identities and pasts go? To a museum? Not in India.

In essence, a museum is a microcosmic keeper of much more than just objects. Sadly, there is no defining word for a museum in our languages. In Urdu, ajaibghar, Bengali jadughar and, of relatively new coinage, sangrahalaya in Hindi describe it as a house that collects the strange or magical. And indeed, in India, a lot of them lie crated, never to see the light of day. Public dissemination of knowledge is notably absent from this meaning. If public museums are to perform a more proactive role in enlightening citizens about their heritage — and, indeed, they can — they have to be seen for what they really are and can be. For too long have they been victims: Neglected appendages to the greater affairs of state.

Most often, no developer — even when the developer is the government, which is supposed to be the caretaker of heritage — reports the discovery of artefacts for fear that archaeologists may slow down or even stop the development work. Chandigarh and Nagarjunasagar (in the 1950s) were cases in point. The absence of any reported antiquities during the construction of the Delhi Metro is a prime example of such silencing and apathy. Whereas all other major historic cities like Paris, Rome and London have used the opportunity of their Metro development to create museums filled with pottery, coins and artefacts found during the excavation, we have been led to believe that, in Delhi, nothing was found while digging in Mehrauli in the shadow of the Qutub Minar, in Tughlaqabad, and under Chandni Chowk in Shahjahanabad. Even if all the antiquities coming out of the country were to be reported, where would they go and who would take care of them? No acquisitions committees have sat at the major museums in India for nearly two decades now. If our museums cannot keep apace with development, we need to ask why. What can be done to help?

The obvious answer is to increase accountability and make the public expect more from the keepers and disseminators of their cultural heritage. The entire South Asian region has seemingly noble and strong laws to protect their heritage. It has departments of archaeology to enforce them and ministries of culture to administer them. These laws are created to preserve our heritage for posterity. Stemming illicit export of heritage is only one part of what the law should be concerned with. The other, more complex side, which governs what should be
done with them once in the country, needs urgent attention. The most important law that needs to be replaced is the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. Long having outlived its purpose, amendments to it have been pending for years, but the larger problem is that it only governs antiquities, which are only a small part of what informs cultural heritage and identity.

The current laws have been framed from the perspective of archaeologists. But an archaeologist is not the only person who is in charge of interpreting what counts as heritage or civilisational memory. Litterateurs and scientists, artists and art historians, historians and anthropologists also investigate issues of civilisational memory and cultural mores. However, these disciplines are not consulted when laws on heritage are framed. As a result, the concerns
of one discipline outweigh others, and a holistic view is not taken.

Museums are meant to be participatory, fostering interconnectivity with the people, responding to their need for a balanced view of their complex histories. Public financing apart, museums need community financing to protect them. But the public in India is alienated from its role in building and contributing to our museums. Why?
The law governing the regulation of sale, purchase, ownership and all related matters concerning material objects of history, though relevant once, has become so notoriously cumbersome and difficult to follow for bona fide collectors, institutional or individual, that it simply attracts violation. It acts as a disincentive for Indians to build collections of antiquities.

We are perhaps expecting far too much of our museums and archaeology departments. The state cannot monitor all the antiquities in the country given the pace of development and change. There is little choice but to widen the support base by increasing the stakeholders in the preservation of heritage — and who better to do that than the people themselves, whose legacy it is.

Faced with similar problems, Japan, the UK, Spain and China have implemented changes to the laws that administer art collecting and museums. The world’s largest auction houses and art dealers have started selling their collections of Fareastern art in China ever since this was incentivised by its government about 10 years ago. China has also opened over 100 departments of art history in its universities so that there will be a higher degree of professionalism in the field in coming years.

While the army, police and other security personnel may produce India’s own Monuments Men, some protection and maintenance must come from the public itself. Public participation and trust-building requires institutional autonomy, to be able to be answerable to a diversity of stakeholders. The atrocity of the demolitions in Afghanistan inspired the extraordinary story of the salvaging and protection of their cultural heritage when Afghans secreted away the treasures of the Kabul museum years later. Have we learnt from the dangers of rising censorship and
extremism in our own home?

It seems, in our times, there is no choice but to factor in the needs of cultural historians in development costs and environmental impact studies to account for the threats to cultural heritage. The safe collection of things is dependent on a legitimate domestic market, of course, but that, too, needs a knowledge base that will allow proper
assessment, protection and preservation of heritage.

The writer is professor, Indian art and architecture, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi