The institution of the museum, as it exists in India today, has its origins in colonial times and its rise, even in the Western world, is umbilically connected to the European geographical voyages that led to the colonisation of numerous societies globally. Besides its economic and political objectives, colonisation had an epistemological dimension rooted in the 18th century era of Enlightenment—which became embodied in the aesthetics of curiosity about other cultures and resulted in the emergence of curiosity cabinets all over Europe—the ancestors of the modern museum.
Right from its inception, the museum has essentially been a place of confinement of objects of culture, fragments which are made to speak synecdochically for the whole culture. So, the museum was kind of stillborn in India, and a large number of regional museums, to varying degrees, have been in that state for decades. In a way, the museum in India itself has become museumised. Most museums have simply remained object-centric, revolving around the imaginary ideas of their uniqueness, authenticity, and often invented traditions, and thereby constructing their national identity—as if the cultural objects were primarily created for and addressed to the museum/nation.
According to renowned museum theorist Duncan F. Cameron’s familiar formulation, there are two distinct museum-related stances: the traditional one of the “Museum as Temple”, and the newer one of the “Museum as Forum”. The museum as temple has the conventional role of collecting, preserving, documenting, categorising, and displaying artefacts for aesthetic veneration. As temple, where stray objects are enshrined for adoration, the museum has certain connotations, addressed clearly by the German word museal—moribund, dead, passive, and therefore “museum-like”.
Cultural objects, as they enter the museum, acquire a new identity. As pointed out by Nicholas Thomas, “[Museum] objects are not what they were made to be, but what they have become.” There was never one single identity or one linear life of a cultural object; even while being a part of a living tradition, it passed through many lives and many identities.
The issue of the many lives of an object is best exemplified by Richard Davies as he traces the journey of a Hindu cultic image through many identities: at its birth it is an object of craftsmanship; through its consecration it becomes an object of worship; through its theft and circulation in the art market it turns into a commodity; and onwards through its pedestalisation in a museum it acquires the status of an object of art. Perhaps if we leaned into the object in the silence of the museum, we may hear it whispering to its neighbour in Shakespeare’s voice: “I am not what I am”.
Looking “into” museum objects
This brings us to Cameron’s second museum-related stance, namely the museum as forum—the theme of this article. The three pivotal constituents of the conventional museum—collection, categorisation and representation—have been historically, socially and politically permeated. In most Indian museums the emphasis has been on the aestheticisation of the object rather than its critical viewing.
Anthropologist Nicholas Thomas once said that to look at an object is not the same as to look into it, which also means looking into the contexts of the object. Adhering to this reflective observation is the pressing need for museums in India to shift their focus from a merely object-oriented stance to becoming forums in which aesthetic, epistemological, historical as well as social and political connotations and contexts are invoked. In other words, expanding museum viewing into a conscious and discursive practice. This would not just relate to objects but also lead to inquiries into the very foundation of museums.
For example, as the museum in India largely continues to rotate around its colonial axis, its Western counterpart is busy developing ethical-sounding strategies for justifying the retention of the colonially plundered massive collections of art objects by means of colonial power imbalances; and defending these acts by floating deceptive concepts such as the “global museum” or the “decolonisation of museums”. While several former colonies have taken up the issue of repatriation of colonially looted objects, in India we do not even have an inventory of objects in Western museums, not to speak of any provenance research on these objects. Let us take these issues further into the proposed strategy of transforming Indian museums into forums.
“Indian museums need to be aware of how much of the country’s cultural heritage has been pilfered and exported abroad, and what their trajectories have been.”
To become a true forum, museums need to encourage viewers to look into a museum object, layer by layer, and from multiple vantage points—identifying and connecting the dots around it and re-constructing an intertwined narrative. This goes far beyond the passive act of aesthetically gazing at a museum object, which often proliferates under the label of “art appreciation”. Most of these “art appreciation” sessions revolve around locating the museum object’s first provenance, and admiring its formal qualities, stylistic development, and the interpretation of its theme or iconography.
This stereotyped approach, though necessary for a preliminary inquiry, most often tends to become an end in itself. The forum then ironically begins to adopt the role of a temple. The role of the museum as forum needs to be that of a liberator, which metaphorically emancipates the museum objects from their sleepy glass-case existence and brings them into a wider discursive arena. When we talk of turning the museum into a forum, we need to re-contextualise museum objects within this space of a wider cultural, historical, social, political and semiotic context, thereby redefining the role of the museum itself.
Let me describe one model for placing museum objects in multiple and shifting historical and conceptual frames. My example pertains to a workshop that I conducted at a small museum of traditional Indian textiles in Delhi in 2016. I discussed a range of issues that went beyond the beauty and technical proficiency of Indian weavers and reflected on other histories and connotations rarely thought about in the museum context.
Looking at the textiles, I addressed issues such as the link between the colourful Indian fabrics and the global slave trade; or between British Indian indigo production and European espionage to learn its cultivation and processing. We talked about the Western fear of colour and Goethe’s colour theory, which saw the world divided into societies of refinement as in northern Europe who had a disinclination to colour, while the “men in a state of nature… uncivilized nations and children, have great fondness for colours in their utmost brightness.” We talked about how the “rubbishy” (read: colourful) Indian cotton goods imported to Britain were exported from the British ports straight to West Africa and bartered against slaves and ivory.
Looking at the use of indigo-dyed fabrics in the museum galleries, we discussed, besides the beauty of the dye, the known issues of the inhuman oppression of indigo farmers leading to the revolt in Champaran in Bihar and the intervention of Gandhi, as well as performances of the play Nil Darpan and the legislation of the 1876 Dramatic Performances Act (granting the British more control over public dramatic performances).
We also went into how the Spanish colonisers partook of the multi-million Asian indigo cultivation and trade by growing it in their middle and South American colonies using slave labour, or how the French systematically conducted espionage on British colonial indigo production with the objective of introducing indigo plantations and manufacture in French Africa. This led our workshop group to discuss the economy of indigo at the time, and the staggering fact that 4 million kilograms of indigo, worth 24 lakh pounds, was produced in 2,000 factories in Bengal alone.
We discussed the issue of how the embargo on American King Cotton during the American Civil War (1861-65) facilitated the entry of Indian cotton into the world market, which led to Bombay benefiting to the tune of 70 million pounds in those four years, giving a hefty boost to the massive urbanisation of the city of Bombay. Issues of swadeshi, the rise of khadi and its aesthetic counterpart handloom, too, came up in the workshop.
Thus, a two-hour workshop on the museum as forum crossed several centuries of aesthetic, social, political, nationalist, economic, and urban histories of India. The idea of the museum as forum offers limitless possibilities to frame museum objects, and our museums need to turn in that direction. This model of discussing the multiple contexts of Indian textiles would work equally well for other objects, giving a deeper critical sense to the viewer.
Besides the issue of objects and collections, there is also the complex question of museological taxonomies. The Indian museum, with its colonial genesis, has also inherited the haphazard fragmentation of a composite cultural heritage into art and craft, classical and folk, sacred and secular, dominant and subaltern, traditional and modern, etc., without evolving valid critical criteria. These hierarchical binaries are still blindly followed in most museum documentations and curations—forms of categorisation which by implication divide society into high and low, scheduled and unscheduled communities, and elide the intricate question of tribal art.
The museum in India needs to play an expository role to create an intelligent and critical viewership instead of holding futile exercises such as a celebration of International Museum Day with juvenile art appreciation activities, putting the burden of inflating the number of visitors on children, who are made to participate in lifeless workshops of mechanically copying Madhubani art or Gond painting.
Is the museum space secular?
Another issue that needs addressing relates to whether museum objects and the museum space can be defined as “secular”. The categories of sacred and secular complexly overlap and are in continuous flux. One of the factors that defined an image as worthy of worship in the canons of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism as well as some tribal communities depended on whether the ritual of consecration, through which the spirit of the deity or the personage was invoked to descend into the image, had been performed. If for any reason such an image was ritually de-consecrated (the living spirit removed from the image) and was no longer an object of worship, did it then become secular enough to be treated in a museum as merely an art object, especially when the latter space is claimed to be secular?
The difference between the “de-consecrated” Indian religious image and the “secular” in the context of their display in museums needs to be nuanced within the museum as forum. There is a formidable debate around this issue in Western museum academia but hardly any in its Indian counterpart. This debate is crucial.
Let me take a couple of recent examples. In 1982, the National Crafts Museum, New Delhi, had acquired a large collection of wooden figures belonging to the Bhuta (spirits of the dead) cult from the Udupi region of Karnataka, which had been discarded from a shrine decades ago. Several deep holes had been drilled into the figures to indicate that they had been ritually deconsecrated, allowing the spirits to abandon the figures. Nevertheless, the museum staff refused to undertake their documentation, fearing the wrath of the deities. When a staffer accepted the job under government pressure, and when soon after starting the work he passed away, his family and the museum staff attributed the death to the anger of the Bhutas.
Similarly, when the cafeteria of New Delhi’s National Museum began to serve meat in 2002, some Hindu groups protested that it hurt their sentiments, and even asked for ritual purification of all the sacred objects in the museum which they said had been defiled by the serving of meat on the museum premises. There are numerous examples of Indian diasporic communities in the Western world asking for permission to worship sacred objects displayed at the museums. In many cases, restricted permission has even been granted.
Museum anthropology provides many such examples that show that even as a religious object enters the so-called secularised space of the museum, it does not seem to fully lose its religious value in the minds of its visitors.
The political, social and cultural significance of such phenomena as well as the various strategies employed by museums to secularise Indian sacred images to turn them into objects of art, have rarely been a part of serious discussion under the framework of the museum as forum in India, which routinely continues to be treated as a temple for aesthetic veneration.
Objects and their journeys
Let us now examine the new critical debates emerging among museums and academia around the world, pertaining to the histories and ethics of museum collecting and the issues of representing the Other, which are rarely discussed in India. Postcolonial studies have been largely engaged with the social, political, and economic effects of colonialism, but the subject of ethics and the modus operandi of “collecting the colony” has only now come into focus. Today, there is a heated debate about the need for provenance research and the possibility of the restitution of cultural property to the societies of their origin. Most museums in India are unaware of this.
“The museum in India needs to play an expository role to create an intelligent and critical viewership instead of holding futile exercises such as a celebration of International Museum Day with juvenile art appreciation activities.”
Most Western museums have begun to display information about provenance after protests were reported from some deprived nations, in order to filter the entry of unethical acquisitions into their collections, and many have expanded their scope to include, ex-post-facto, colonial and wartime acquisitions. I believe that Indian museums today—and indeed the Indian people—need to be aware of how much Indian cultural heritage has been pilfered and exported abroad, and what their trajectories have been.
The strange yet unquestioned practice of displaying the chopped-off heads of the Buddha or of Hindu deities in museums, installed on a pedestal and generally spiked on a rod, is a common sight in galleries of Asian art. We have become so accustomed to the museum-generated, self-contained aesthetics of these reconfigured tableaux of violence and fragmentation, originating from the mould of museum displays, that we forget that more often than not this convention has its roots in widespread and unethical colonial and neocolonial collecting practices.
Scores of stone sculptures from South and Southeast Asian countries, currently in the possession of museums worldwide, were evidently removed from ancient Hindu or Jain temples or Buddhist stupas, and straight, art-historically oriented provenance research would enable the identification of the region or even the exact monument and sometimes even the spot where these once belonged.
Once the broad provenance of such estranged sculptural fragments is established, it becomes a moral duty of the custodian museums to restore the fragment to the offcuts or empty niches left behind, especially when museums claim to be dedicated to the high ideals of protection, restoration and universalist conception of cultural property. Instead, they celebrate the aesthetics of fragments lying in far-away museums, which regularly serve as a canon for writing art histories.
Even when the exact spot is not identifiable, the fragment should be restored to a site museum in the vicinity of its origin. Such issues, too, need to become a part of the conversation around museums. I do not recall a single full-fledged seminar, conference or workshop ever held in India to discuss issues related to provenance research or restitution of objects. Meanwhile, protests voiced by Greece, Egypt or numerous African nations about the restitution of their plundered cultural property have created a flutter in Western museums, leading to discussions and triggering a process of restoring such objects.
Let me take just one example of the transfer of almost an entire Indian monument—the ancient and unique Buddhist stupa of Amaravati—to Britain during colonial rule. It is now displayed in the British Museum. My intention here is not to produce an inventory of such colonial relocations of Indian art objects (which is enormous), but to use the Amaravati example as a typical instance of the modus operandi of colonial acquisitions, which museums in India need to explore from the angle of provenance research.
According to the British Museum’s own documentation, the Amaravati Stupa (ca. first century BC to second century AD and later) pertains to the mid-19th century consignment of more than 120 rare sculptural panels, described by a British Museum official as “the greatest collection of Indian religious sculpture outside the Indian sub-continent”, to Britain from Amaravati, after British excavations in 1845 and after.
In 1859, a collection of 121 pieces was transferred to London, apparently on the grounds that their condition at Madras Museum was deteriorating for atmospheric reasons. The sculptures were shipped to Britain “under the order of the Court of Directors” (of the East India Company). In London, the sculptures were housed at different institutions for more than three decades before being sent to the British Museum.
It is on record that, ironically, during this 140-year period (ca. between the 1850s and the 1990s) the sculptures suffered varying degrees of erosion and deterioration due to the humid climate of London, after which these were displayed in the Joseph Hotung Gallery at British Museum with controlled pollution and humidity.
Today, Indian museums have a few relatively minor fragments from the great Amaravati stupa. In response to a query by an Indian visitor at the time of the inauguration of the Hotung Gallery, the then curator went on record to say that India had never asked for the sculptures to be returned. Museums in India thus need to become true forums, to take up such issues for discussion and action.
In the context of the complete absence of a full-fledged inventory of Indian cultural property abroad and of any organised strategy for its restitution, it is important to note that several African countries, former colonies, have not only prepared inventories of their cultural property in Western museums and laid claims to their repatriation, but have already begun to receive the objects being returned. France and Germany have begun the process of repatriation of masterpieces of African art. It is high time India set up a Centre for Provenance Research on Indian cultural property abroad, which will serve not only as a great archive but as a first step towards a possible future claim for repatriation.
The notion of the decolonisation of museums by some Western museums (mainly comprising offers of long-term loans, travelling exhibitions, and digital sharing of colonially acquired objects with former colonies), and the idea of universal museums and other measures of conciliation are the subject of heated discussions these days. Though measures such as long-term loans could be seen as welcome first steps towards decolonisation, there is equally a scope for the source societies to see their acceptance as measures by which they will relinquish their possible claim to ownership and any future endeavour for repatriation.
It would be hard to even discuss the concept of universal museums as promulgated in the “Declaration on the importance and value of universal museums” (signed by more than a dozen Western museums) within the framework of the decolonisation of collections, as, right at the outset, it rules out any discourse on repatriation on the ground that “[o]ver time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or partage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them.”
A counter argument to this is that caring for and housing “over time” cultural objects which were simply taken from colonised societies during a great power imbalance does not even come close to the centuries-old genesis, care and social usage of these objects. However, the museum’s care is clearly prioritised, thus leaving little scope for any dialogue within the apparently liberal objective of decolonisation or justification of retaining the former colony’s cultural wealth under the rubric of the Universal Museum.
Moreover, the Declaration accentuates the new context that the museum provides to objects displaced from their original cultural context: “Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from the original source.”
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The “valid and valuable context” also may be seen, in its essence, as based fully on Western terms, which cannot be better summarised than in the words of art theorist Alfred Gell: “The project of ‘indigenous aesthetics’ is essentially geared to refining and expanding the aesthetic sensitivities of the Western art public by providing a cultural context within which non-Western art objects can be assimilated to the categories of Western aesthetic art appreciation.”
Clearly, the emphatic stance of the Declaration would need to be more flexible and open to dialogue to provide space for deliberation on the related issues of provenance research and/ or restitution in the conceivably open framework of decolonisation. It is astonishing that barring a few exceptions, most museums in India have not even heard of these propositions that have been mooted and supported by several important Western museums, not to speak of leading any serious discourse on them.
Jyotindra Jain, formerly Director of National Crafts Museum; Getty Distinguished Professor at JNU; and Visiting Professor at Harvard University & Humboldt University, is a scholar of Indian vernacular arts, popular visual culture, photography, and museum theory. Jain has received the Netherlands’ Prince Claus Award and Germany’s Order of Merit. Portions of this article are based on a keynote address given at the CSMVS in 2019.
- According to renowned museum theorist Duncan F. Cameron’s familiar formulation, there are two distinct museum-related stances: the traditional one of the “Museum as Temple”, and the newer one of the “Museum as Forum”
- Museum as forum is the theme of this article
- Anthropologist Nicholas Thomas once said that to look at an object is not the same as to look into it, which also means looking into the contexts of the object
- To become a true forum, museums need to encourage viewers to look into a museum object, layer by layer, and from multiple vantage points—identifying and connecting the dots around it and re-constructing an intertwined narrative
- While several former colonies have taken up the issue of repatriation of colonially looted objects, in India we do not even have an inventory of objects in Western museums, not to speak of any provenance research on these objects
- The museum in India needs to play an expository role to create an intelligent and critical viewership instead of holding futile exercises such as a celebration of International Museum Day with juvenile art appreciation activities