The city today is abuzz with a growing public concern for heritage and environmental preservation. In the line of its many campaigns for this cause, The Telegraph has recently carried a diatribe against the creed of Calcutta empanelled conservation architects and their continuing destruction of heritage buildings in the name of modernization and restoration (“Method of Madness”, Metro on Sunday, December 13, 2009). At the centre of the controversy is the iconic 1875 structure of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, and the horrors of a “monstrous proposal” that threatens to add a mansard roof above the first floor and a glass lattice dome covering the inner courtyard of the building. Having allowed a series of mindless demolitions of Calcutta’s colonial period architecture, having looked the other way while one after another of the city’s flyovers rudely obstructed the street frontage of some of its grandest 19th-century buildings, we cannot but welcome such belated heritage awareness of citizens, journalists and conservationists. But there is also an irony in the way such orchestrated protectionist anxieties can end up blocking any imaginative architectural scheme in the city — and scotching new visions even before they have had a fair chance of being debated and thought through. It is imperative, at this juncture of the city’s heritage planning and developmental history, not just to give vent to a general anger against all alleged malpractices of renovation, but to treat each case in its context and specificity. It is equally important to extricate the real issues at stake from the morass of bureaucratic biases, clashing egos, and misguided public fears fuelled through a selective leaking of information to the press.
Let me try to place in perspective some of the restructuring plans for the Indian Museum, the oldest in the country, as it moves toward its bicentenary celebrations in 2014. As a researcher on the early history of this museum, and as a member now of its Board of Trustees and its Bicentenary Vision, Concept and Development Committee (formed in the summer of 2008), I think it is my responsibility to invite a different order of civic interest in the proposed overhaul of the institution and the many deterrents that stand in the way. Any attempt to transform this massive and fossilized museum is a gargantuan task. If the range and diversity of its collections (belonging to the fields of natural history, geology, zoology, anthropology, archaeology, sculpture, painting, textiles and decorative arts) are unparalleled, so is the scale of corruption and unprofessionalism that has permeated different levels of the functioning of this institution. Here is a museum where not even a basic centralized record of all items on display and in storage is in place; where formats and arrangements of galleries have remained frozen in time; where none of the fundamental conservational and rotational requirements of fragile exhibits like miniature painting or textiles has been met; and where huge amounts of funds have been misspent on inexpert, piecemeal redesigning of galleries. Before any other plans are considered, the foundational work of compiling a full inventory of all objects has now been given top priority under a freshly activated Physical Verification Committee.
For a museum that has, since its inception, housed the various Surveys — the Geological, the Botanical, the Zoological, the Archaeological and the Anthropological — there is also the major problem of the assertion of single custodianship over objects and spaces. While the archaeological, arts and crafts and anthropological collections stand under the direct custody of the Indian Museum, the Geological, Botanical and Zoological Surveys continue to hold on to their individual collections, galleries and offices within these precincts, even as they come under separate Central government ministries and regimes of funding. Not a single showcase or exhibit can be moved, nor any gallery redesignated, nor any space reclaimed for other uses, without a carefully crafted arrangement of collaboration and consent of these Surveys and the various curatorial departments of the museum. A series of seemingly insurmountable challenges confront an external body like the Bicentenary Committee, as it attempts to steer this mammoth institution towards a new future. How does one radically redefine the collections, functions and aesthetics of this museum, while retaining the flavour of its imperial past and its status as the composite object-archive of the empire? In what ways can one maximize the spaces for exhibition, storage, offices, library, and public facilities and circulation within this built structure and its inner and outer precincts? And how effectively can this committee exercise its authority and work towards certain commonly-conceived goals vis-à-vis a series of bureaucratic obstacles and administrative injunctions crowding this heritage space and structure?
These are critical questions that the public must be made aware of as much as the committee must cautiously negotiate. That there is a crying urgency of structural and systemic changes within the Indian Museum is a point on which all agree — the contentions are over the extent to which existing arrangements can be undone and reworked. Currently, a main source of consternation consists of certain dramatic architectural additions proposed on the museum building, which has been classified as a Grade A structure by the West Bengal Heritage Commission, and is therefore said to permit no changes in its external façade. But, in this hue and cry, it is important to drive home the point that the chairman of the museum’s Bicentenary Committee is also the chairman of the West Bengal Heritage Commission, and that the committee consists of some of the most reputed persons in the museums, and architectural, archaeological and academic professions in New Delhi and Calcutta. Is it too much to ask that some confidence be invested in the opinions and judgments of this expert forum, and that it be allowed to proceed with its work of planning and conceptualization, in the faith that it will not be wanting in sensitivity towards the heritage value of the precincts in its charge?
It is out of a rigorous selection process, where several architectural firms from all over the country made a series of presentations before the committee, that a particular consortium of city architects (with impressive credentials in heritage restoration) was selected to work closely with the museum authorities, a curatorial team and the members of the committee on a wide-ranging plan for the upgradation of the exterior and interiors of the building. These redesign plans extend from the galleries of the main building to the entire complex at the back, spread out between Sudder and Kyd Streets, including the historic Jhinjiri Talao tank — with the idea of converting these grounds into a public entrance, a car park, a complex of Museum and Survey offices, cast-making units, temporary exhibition halls, shops and cafeterias, and perhaps an open sculpture courtyard. These plans, it must be emphasized, have been based on meticulous information gathering on the architectural and institutional history of these premises. It is in the critical interests of augmentation of space that there are also proposals for creating a basement storage section beneath the building, constructing an additional floor with a mansard roof and covering the open inner courtyard with a glass canopy (this last proposal has of late been vetoed by the Board of Trustees). An ornamental copper mansard roof (similar to that of the Writers’ Buildings) was, in fact, a part of the original plans of the architect, Walter B. Granville, for the building, but was finally never executed for shortage of funds. Today’s proposals for building this roof (in the style of the old, but with new light weight material) could well be seen as fulfilling Granville’s uncompleted vision of the building, and endowing it with a new elevation and frontage that can rise above the obstruction of the flyover. Whether or not any of these proposals will be implemented, and with what revisions and emendations, is still an open question. At this point of planning, what needs underlining is that none of these proposals can ever come about without the extensive collaboration of the CPWD and the KMC and the sanction of the Heritage Commission. And it is the arduous negotiation of these arrangements that has, much to the frustration of the Bicentenary Committee, stalled the appointment of a consulting architect firm and curatorial expert for this project, a year since the selection processes began.
There is also a pressing need at this juncture to ask Calcuttans to look outwards to other contemporary museum histories in the world — to alert them particularly to the radical modernist interventions that sacrosanct heritage buildings like those of the Louvre and the British Museum have made room for in the past decades. The construction of I.M. Pei’s spectacular glass pyramid at the centre of the Louvre courtyard (opened in 1989), or of Norman Foster’s equally spectacular glass dome over the new Great Court of the British Museum (opened in 2000), were not without their share of fierce criticisms. But who can today deny that these architectural innovations have powerfully redefined the life of these two museums and become the pride of the cities that host them? To stick uncritically to the position that nothing can be changed or added to the architectural structure of the Grade A heritage building of the Indian Museum, whatever the new needs of the time, is typical of the kind of bureaucratic mindset and straitjacketed thinking that has been the bane of many restoration schemes in the city. Can we not, instead, think collectively and creatively on how these redesign plans for the Indian Museum can best be carried forward? This is a time when there is greater administrative will and initiative, professional experience and government funds at the disposal of this institution than ever before in its recent history. Let us not lose this valuable opportunity. Leaving behind partisan interests and adverse reporting, let us work towards giving the city a fitting gift of a rejuvenated Indian Museum on the occasion of its bicentenary.