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January 1, 2012

Is the dearth of world-class museums in India part of the tragic legacy of empire?

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Photograph via Flickr by abrinsky

The post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha once told me that when he went away to university in Oxford, he found life there provincial compared to Bombay, where he had lived and first studied: “There was something about the active hybridization of cultural practices and values in Bombay that made the city, its conversations and confluences, remarkably invigorating. Oxford seemed pallid and self-protective.” Relations between imperial center and imperialized periphery are not so simple.

Among the cultural foundations of an independent India was the Asiatic Society, founded by a British civil servant; it continues today, with an ambitious program of research activities in the sciences and humanities, supported by a library, museum, and publications program. The Archaeological Survey of India, proposed by an East India Company military engineer, remains the authoritative agency for all matters related to archaeology, antiquities, and site museums in India. India’s cultural property regime was established by the British and is still the basis for India’s definition of control over what it claims to be its cultural legacy. Even the National Museum of India is based in great part on the work of a British government committee, which in 1946 offered a blueprint for a Central National Museum of Art, Archaeology and Anthropology to be set on a central New Delhi site at the Kingsway-Queensway crossing.

The cultural foundations of an independent India were of imperial origin.

It is often said that the knowledge-producing project of the British Empire was an instrument of control. In Gyan Prakash’s formulation:

“The beginnings of science’s cultural authority in India lie in the ‘ civilizing mission’ introduced by the British in the early nineteenth century. It was then that colonial rule began to manifest a distinct shift from its late-eighteenth-century modality. As the East India Company consolidated its territorial control, it slowly shed its character as a body of traders whose eyes were on quick and ill- gotten profits, and settled down to fashion a despotism aimed at developing and exploiting the territory’s resources efficiently and systematically. . . . As the British produced detailed and encyclopedic histories, surveys, studies, and censuses, and classified the conquered land and people, they furnished a body of empirical knowledge with which they could represent and rule India as a distinct and unified space. Constituting India through the empirical sciences went hand in hand with the establishment of a grid of modern infrastructures and economic linkages that drew the unified territory into the global capitalistic economy.”

Indian museums under British rule—whether focused on archaeology, natural or economic history, or industrial or fine arts—were part and parcel of this knowledge production. But their story is more complex. The Archaeological Survey of India continues as a centralized institution, scientifically gathering knowledge, controlling its production through state-sanctioned excavations and publications, and policing access to important monuments and archaeological artifacts, whether held publicly or privately. Its director-general even has the power “to decide whether any article, object or thing is or is not an antiquity for the purposes of this Act” (the Antiquities Export Control Act of 1947). And the National Museum of India is the author of independent India’s national artistic narrative and canon. Knowledge-control is a function of the state, whether imperial or republican.

It is often said that the knowledge-producing project of the British Empire was an instrument of control.

That said, control is not and never has been absolute. However much the imperial capital in Calcutta or the republic’s capital in New Delhi has sought control, museums on the periphery often resist it. Kavita Singh has written of Indian state museums as evidence of the growing independence of the Princely States from centralized British control during the Raj. She refers to Rudyard Kipling’s pointed praise of Jaipur’s Central Museum and his call to the:

“Governments of India, from Punjab to Madras! The doors come true to the jamb, the cases which have been through hot weather are neither warped nor cracked, nor are there unseemly tallow-drops and flaws in the glasses… These things are so because money has been spent on the Museum, and it is now a rebuke to all other museums in India, from Calcutta downwards… [a museum] built, filled and endowed with royal generosity—an institution perfectly independent of the Government of India…”

Singh suggests that Kipling might here be venting some of his father’s spleen, who as curator of the Lahore Museum had to function with limited funds and cumbersome, centralized imperial bureaucracy.

Singh questions the whole center-local paradigm with regard to museums in India. She points out that the earliest museums—in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay—were started not by the government but by amateurs (the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and Madras, in the latter case with the involvement of the Madras Literary Society). Only when these early museums’ collections became large and unwieldy did they appeal to the government to take them over and maintain them: the museum in Madras was taken over by the East India Company administration in 1851, as was Calcutta’s in 1865 (it had first appealed in 1814); Bombay’s Victoria and Albert Museum (now the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum) remained independent until 1886, when the city took it over. It is only with the British Raj that there emerged the beginnings of a coherent museum policy for India. And it, Singh notes, was principally concerned with the museums’ potential for encouraging economic and industrial production. In 1882 the secretary to the Home Department responsible for such museums wrote in his report, “The main object… is not the gratification of occidental curiosity, or the satisfaction of aesthetic longings among foreign nations, but a development of a trade in these products, whether raw or manufactured, rough or artistic.”

During the Raj, while there emerged government support for archaeological, scientific, economic, and industrial arts museums and collections, there was far less attention given to the fine arts. That fell to private citizens and the princely courts. The purchase by Sayayji Rao of Baroda of a large collection of European paintings should not be read, Singh argues, “as a slavish imitation of European practices, the half-heartedness and insincerity of colonial progressivism.” It was instead a manifestation of his progressive vision of rulership. He built his museum, filled it with wondrous things from many historical periods and cultures, and opened it to the public. “What is most significant about Sayaji Rao’s act of making his collection,” Singh writes, “is that he alone in India invested in purchasing the best European art and then gifted it to his public. For all the claims made by the British about the superiority of Western over Eastern art, on the one hand, and their professed desire to educate and civilize Indians, on the other, they nowhere attempted to give their Indian citizens access to high European culture.”

This is a damning assessment of the imperial museum enterprise in India. It would fall to the maharajahs under the Raj and to private individuals under the empire (like the Tatas, who in 1921 and 1933 donated their collections of Tibetan, Nepalese, Japanese, and Chinese art and European paintings to the Prince of Wales Museum, and thus to the citizens of Bombay) to embrace the promise of the encyclopedic museum as first constituted in the British Museum and as I have defined it here. The imperial museums failed in this regard, and the national museums have done no better. They each looked back and defined their India in narrow, politically determined terms. They didn’t embrace the world of which India has always been a part. And the unified construction of their “India” did not and cannot hold.

The imperial museums failed in this regard, and the national museums have done no better. They each looked back and defined their India in narrow, politically determined terms.

Neil MacGregor points out that the museum can be a place where dialogues and debates occur that cannot occur in temples or mosques. The latter are self-interested institutions, dedicated to the formulation of a particular worldview defined precisely as not another’s. The museum, on the other hand, and especially the encyclopedic museum, aspires to the condition of disinterestedness as a secular site for individual exploration and public conversation about difference in the world. It presents evidence of such difference—things that bear the imprint of difference, as well as the markings of cultural hybridity—and then subjects that evidence to scientific examination and offers it up for public consideration. In the post-national world in which we live, in which religious revivalism and cultural nationalism are hardening essentialized differences between people, such sites offer the best hope for tolerance and understanding of difference. Religious and cultural sites, on the other hand, are often places of fierce contest and intolerance.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta points out that the destruction of the mosque was more than an attack on a particular building or on Muslim sentiments. It was an attack on the Indian government’s claim that the building was cultural property, part of the heritage of India, to be protected as a monument of historical and archaeological importance for all Indians. And at issue in debates following the attack was trust in the scientifc truth of archaeological evidence.

From the beginning, the demand by the right-wing Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) that a temple be built on the site was based on a “mass of literary, historical, archaeological and judicial evidence” for the existence of an earlier temple marking Rama’s birthplace, which it presented to the government of India in 1990. This was intended to refute the counterevidence presented by the Centre for Historical Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1989. As the debate raged on, with neither side convincing the other, one archaeologist, B.P. Sinha, pointed out that archaeological evidence itself is insufficient in the face of belief: “For hundreds of years, if not thousands, the Hindus have believed this site to be the birthplace of their divine Lord Rama,” and it is misguided to “whisk away such long-held pious belief of millions with . . . tons of weighty polemics.”

In the post-national world in which we live, in which religious revivalism and cultural nationalism are hardening essentialized differences between people, such sites offer the best hope for tolerance and understanding of difference.

Romila Thapar, a leading figure on the left/secular side of the debate, replied:

“What is at issue is the attempt to give historicity to what began as a belief. Whereas anyone has a right to his or her beliefs, the same cannot be held for a claim to historicity. Such a claim has to be examined in terms of the evidence, and it has to be discussed by professionals. . . . Historicity . . . cannot be established in a hurry and, furthermore, has always to be viewed in the context of possible doubt. Archaeology is not a magic wand, which in a matter of moments conjures up the required evidence. Such ‘instant’ archaeology may be useful as a political gambit, but creates a sense of unease among professional archaeologists.”

Destruction of the mosque and the clearing of the land by the government made difficult if not impossible the task of justifying archaeological interpretations through stratigraphic analysis. What remained were fragments, which were marshaled as evidence by both sides, historical accounts that could be used to the advantage of either side, and myth and memory, which would never allow the side represented by the VHP to accept the evidence and arguments of the other. Neither politicized belief nor academic archaeology could sustain attempts at knowledge-control. Ultimately what did—for now—was the government, specifically the courts. The judges voted, determined the truth of the conflicting claims, and split the baby. The contesting parties, whose edifices were said to have been built one atop another, the mosque atop the temple, were instructed to cohabit side by side. Prospects of a peaceful coexistence are not promising.

                 *                     *                     *

Homi Bhabha reminds us that “postcolonial civil societies are profoundly cosmopolitan, having weathered the incursions and impositions of ‘international’ cultural and market forces prior to encountering their own ‘nationalist’ moments… That is precisely Frantz Fanon’s point when he argues that, despite global inequalities and injustices, it is difficult to act ethically in the national interest without taking a larger view on international well-being.” This should be a lesson for all of our museums and a reason to aspire to the condition of the encyclopedic. It is what I have argued throughout my book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum: that encyclopedic museums can encourage a curiosity about and understanding of difference in the world; that difference has always been and has inspired and left its mark on works of art from every culture; and that by promoting understanding of these basic truths about culture and history, museums can encourage tolerance of difference itself.

The example of India is evidence of the need to cultivate a cosmopolitan view of the world and encourage cultural institutions to support it. The British, having launched the quintessential cultural institution—the encyclopedic museum—exploited India economically, deprived its citizens of self- determination (withdrawing only after decades of protests and violent confrontations), and established many of its lasting cultural institutions. But they failed to give India what Britain enjoyed for itself, and what others have since emulated: museums with representative examples of the world’s cultures, committed to scientific inquiry, open to the public and respectful of individual agency, and dedicated to the dissipation of ignorance about the world. The absence of such museums, except for the few small but noble ones established locally, is part of the tragic legacy of empire in India.

Excerpted from Museums Matter by James Cuno, copyright 2011 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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James Cuno is the president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He served as president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2004 until 2011. He is the author of Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, coauthor of The Modern Wing: Renzo Piano and The Art Institute of Chicago, and coauthor and editor of Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities and Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust.

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