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200 yrs of magic museum

Exactly 200 years to the day, Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish botanist, had in a letter to the Asiatic Society of Bengal made an appeal for the formation of a museum in Calcutta, which lacked a “public repository… to which the naturalist or scholar can refer”.

On Sunday morning, at the start of the bicentennial celebrations of the Indian Museum that germinated from Wallich’s appeal, governor M.K. Narayanan, who has personally overseen the makeover of the museum building, said it was “the epitome of modernity in antiquity”, meaning, to use his own words, that it must become “more exuberant” and a “source of public education… harnessing modern ideas”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a similar appeal to the management of the museum “to see itself as an agent of change and development. As it renews its journey, it should seriously think about its role as a purveyor of knowledge. It is not enough in today’s world to house a collection”.

He added that certain cities are defined by museums. The Indian Museum, too, should become a favourite tourist destination. He released a first-day cover and launched the commemorative monograph, Jadughar (the popular name of the museum), by Soumitra Das.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said she had visited the Indian Museum when she was in school, and admitted that it was a remiss on her part. She wanted all schoolchildren to visit the museum more often.

Considering that the decision to refurbish the museum structure was made at the last moment — August-December 2011 — on the face of it, the job seems to have been well done by the National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), a central undertaking.

The Indian Museum never looked better ever since the majesty of the building designed by Walter B. Granville got somewhat eclipsed by the Park Street flyover. All magnificent objects like the Yakshis and the Yakshas, Kalpadruma or wish-fulfilling tree, and including the recently-damaged Rampurva lion capital of Ashok, are now free-standing pieces of sculpture as all the clutter and redundant woodwork have been removed from the entrance and the Long gallery (archaeology section).

The LED lighting has worked wonders for the display, and the gloom and shadows that visitors found depressing, have been chased away. The huge windows will be thrown open from now to enable natural light to illuminate the huge rooms and galleries.

Two interactive kiosks have been introduced in the refurbished coin gallery and the human evolution gallery of the anthropological section. The DNA model spiralling from the ceiling and the exhibits in showcases give it a modern look. The labels are more viewer friendly and so are the maps and charts in the Bharhut and Gandhar galleries.

The textile and decorative art gallery could not have looked better with the gorgeous display of Benarasi saris, gold brocade or kimkhab, princely shawls and porcelain and intricate ivory carvings.

But that does not take away from the fact that the top floor of the museum, which houses the art and anthropology section offices, are firetraps as the two staircases that lead to it have been closed. A lift provides the only access and the electrical wiring is not in the best of condition, to say the least. The vaults, where the holdings are stored, are reportedly not fully waterproof.

Many trained and curatorial staff are retiring this year, and without fresh recruitment it would be impossible to maintain the galleries. The museum also lacks infrastructure to run it smoothly.

Union culture minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch said in her address that Rs 100 crore was sanctioned for the Indian Museum. The Botanical Survey, Zoological Survey and the Geological Survey had developed from the museum where they organise and maintain their own galleries. The directors of the Surveys complained in private that their galleries lacked funds to refurbish the moth-eaten objects and it was impossible to bring out literature on them.

Later in the day, historian Romila Thapar delivered the Nathaniel Wallich Memorial Lecture. She said museums may have been a “colonial imposition on India” but she did not agree with art historians who claimed that museums did not go down well with Indians. She could not have been more true when she stressed that “administrators assume they too are specialists… Changes tend not to be made when most needed.”

Thapar also noted that museums today were “recognition of not only our culture but other cultures as well.”

WHAT’S NEW

The building has been refurbished without any structural changes. The façade and interiors were deplastered for the first time in 200 years. The same material was recycled to replaster the entire structure. The project began in August-December 2011.

Refurbished galleries are Archaeology (Bharhut, Gandhar, Coin, Long gallery and the corridors), Decorative Art, Textile and Anthropology (Human Evolution).

Coin and Human Evolution galleries now have interactive kiosks. The labels are clearer and more informative. There are maps and charts as well.

Fewer exhibits and thus more breathing space for objects. The wooden clutter and cabinets have been removed from the entrance to the museum and the Archaeology gallery.

State-of-the-art ticket counters, cafeteria and souvenir shop and restrooms.

The new LED lights have chased away the shadows and the gloom. Gallery windows to be kept open for better illumination.

The Decorative Art and Textile galleries look particularly sumptuous with their displays of brocades, kimkhab, shawls, ivory pieces, the Burmese temple front and the house front from Bhavnagar in Gujarat. All the exquisite details stand out now.

The entrance to the Archaeology section is through the Bharhut gallery and it is clearly indicated. Earlier this entrance was closed and it was easy to miss.

Indian Museum reopens on February 4. All galleries save the ones being restored will be open to the public