A decomposing mummy sounds like a particularly grotesque oxymoron. But what ancient Egypt honed to perfection has been undone effortlessly by modern Calcutta. So, visitors to the Indian Museum in the city have to brave the stench of a rotting cadaver in order to visit the Egyptian gallery. The air-conditioning has not been working for a while, and the other conditions are also far from ideal. As a result, the earliest mummy to have come into India has turned into a nasty mascot for everything that is rotten in the city’s attitude to heritage, culture and conservation. Museums in other Indian cities also have mummies that have proven to be difficult to look after properly. But these museums have at least put their stinking mummies in storage, away from the eyes and noses of hapless visitors who still throng these places with unabated enthusiasm.
This, then, is the tragedy of these public institutions. Museums in India, particularly the Indian Museum in Calcutta, have the rare privilege of being visited by an unusually wide range of people from all sorts of urban and rural milieux. They represent a genuine democracy of curiosity and interest that would be the envy of museum authorities in other, more affluent, countries of the world. In spite of this great head-start, or perhaps because of this, there is the callousness, neglect and lack of technical, administrative and academic knowledge, skill and commitment, and the wasted opportunity to mediate history and heritage to a variegated public, that become all the more unfortunate. This is true for not only the museums, but also libraries, heritage houses and other repositories of archival resources. But the Indian Museum in Calcutta seems to be a specially grim instance of both visible and invisible mismanagement, given the richness of its collection. The National Museum and the Crafts Museum in Delhi, or the Dr Bhau Daji Lad and Prince of Wales Museums in Mumbai, have all improvised different modes of working the system to innovate ways of reaching out to the public while looking after and displaying their collections. This means not only the proper training of museum personnel at every level, but also working out different combinations of sustainable public and private support. In fact, it is uniquely possible to create an authentically different kind of museum architecture, display and ambience in India by combining the colonial character of these institutions with state-of-the-art museological and conservationist thinking and technology.
Instead of ‘modernizing’ India’s museums to give them all a uniformly ‘global museum’ look, each of these places could have a distinctive character — as does the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) that has succeeded in retaining its old aesthetic and traditional public even after a thorough rehaul. Calcutta, too, is full of grand old venues falling into dereliction, each of which can be converted into a small, compactly administered museum, housing modestly sized collections. This might be a better way of stemming the rot than unsustainable delusions of grandeur.