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Curating ‘Cultures’: Collections, Practices and their Histories - Sudeshna Guha


This talk was delivered as part of The Idea of Culture, 2018 in Calcutta.

‘Curating’ appears to be one of the trendy words at present—we hear about the curation of cuisines, the curation of home décor, the curation of fashion and couture, the curation of popular music and public art. Curation appears as a synonym for any kind of careful crafting or arrangement, although the reflexivity which the practice encourages remains masked in its rampant publicity.

Culture, however, is no longer broached as a worthy topic of ‘discourse’ by the disciplines among the social sciences—the foremost being social anthropology—which virtually rose to prominence by theorizing about this concept. Yet, the practices through which culture is curated encourages a reminder of the views of Clifford Geertz who had defined culture as the ‘webs of significance which man himself has spun and finds himself suspended in.’ Geertz had provided perhaps the best conceptual tools for thinking about culture at a time, we now know, when culture was receding from the horizons of anthropological theories. He offered empirical reasons for rejecting the theoretical universalization of culture as a complex whole and of the operational and methodological dogma of contemporary functionalist definitions by cautioning anthropologists to remember that ‘although one can move between the forms in search of broader unities, societies—like lives—contain their own interpretations. ’When we undertake an attempt at the curation of culture, we are inevitably drawn towards Geertz’s injunctions to undertake a‘ thick description’ which, according to him, helps us understand what ethnography actually means. Because it is only by scrutinizing the biases that lead to our interpretive methods that we are able to understand the manner in which we often transform ideational concepts into visible, tangible and valid evidence. Curation, in relationship to culture, allows us to focus upon methodology; and in regarding curatorial imperatives, we attend to the seminal methods through which we create notions of evidence.

This brings us to consider the manner in which evidence is constituted, especially through methods of visualization. In this respect, archaeology’s visual histories are extremely rich sources for gauging the ontological fashioning of an absent past. Given that archaeological knowledge is anchored upon transcriptions of sight, field photography and field drawings are carefully undertaken to exhibit the undertaking of an objective science. Yet, quite akin to research within the observational sciences, archaeology too has largely stayed away from interrogating the epistemic force of vision. For example, photography has been extensively used within archaeology for showing analogies as valid evidence, yet the uses of photographs in archaeological research remains largely neglected as a topic of research enquiry. Photographs which speak of here-and-now are often placed alongside those taken at the excavated sites to show the truths of the ethno-archaeological methods wherein inferences of the past are made through a knowledge of the present. The juxtaposition of a photograph of a present-day day ‘home’ with that of a ‘post-hole’,viz., the circular patch, affirms the truisms of the analogical method which archaeology routinely uses for deriving knowledge of the unknown aspects of the past .The photograph of an archaeological find placed next to one which depicts a present-day shelter, or technologies of production ‘proves’ the validity of analogical inference. The displays of photographs allow the juxtaposition of different times, and, as the slide demonstrate, they facilitate the making of archaeological evidence.

Emulating their peers in social anthropology, archaeologists have, for much of the twentieth century, looked at culture through the prism of functionalist and systemic perspectives. This diagram describes an archaeological culture that represents ‘man’s extrasomatic’ (outside the body) means of adaptation’. Culture in archaeology is seen through a universalist frame and comprises the interconnections of the different subsystems of religion, economics, politics, society and the environment, among others. Change in one subsystem effects changes within the others. Yet, in practice, the construct of an archaeological culture occurs through the classification and ordering of the specific traits of an excavated or explored assemblage. Or, in material terms, an archaeological culture comprises an assemblage of ‘similar’ things, either from the same time, the same society or deemed designed for similar uses. The continuation of the normative view of culture is rather apparent when we read of cultures such as Painted Grey Ware, Acheulean and Han-Axe. The make-up of the archaeological culture as a discrete unit usually considered to span a specific geographical area also conforms, as preeminent historian of nationalism Anthony Smith has written, to ‘the nationalist picture of territorially rooted and culturally distinct nations’, evolving for a long time within distinct homelands.[1]

The construct of archaeological culture, therefore, provokes an interrogation of the methods of creating categories. And since typologies of sameness and likeness contribute to histories of essentialisms, the construct implicates the latent aim of the discipline of archaeology to unearth and understand the characteristics, or the essential traits, of past societies.

The act of classification as the anthropological study of ‘persuasive resemblances’ by Michael Herzfeld ‘entails the conflation of what can be analytically regarded as separate domains of identities.’[2] Herzfeld has demonstrated the importance of regarding the labels of the illustrations of antiquities in books and exhibitions in order to gauge the manner in which they feed nationalist projects. After a cursory study of the frontispiece of a 1964 reprint of J. C. Lawton’s book on the survivalist study of the Greek folk religion, Herzfeld shows that the captions for the groups of similar objects ‘unknowingly shows one the many similarities between ancient and modern life in Greece.’[3] Since the clustering of different objects into unique categories is regarded in archaeology as a natural method of ordering the world, it is salubrious to remember that the historiographies of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism have contributed rather substantively to the material creations of cultural essences. The ‘colonialist’ historiographies demonstrated cultural essentialisms by establishing ‘true histories’, often through archaeological excavations, of the changeless traditions of the subject population, and the nationalist historiographies have amply shown the truths of the essence of a national culture for ‘proving’, no doubt erroneously, the long antiquity of nation-states.

The non-present past that is made real and visible by professional archaeologists provides proof of tradition and belonging. Its material make-up is often established by and sourced from the cultural politics of nation-making which, as we know, endows exclusive, unique and fiercely acquisitive identities. In noting the histories of cultural politics, we also note shifts in the understanding and fashioning of patrimony, the creations of social and collective memories, the claims of indigeneity and of the diaspora, and the conflicting interests of public good and capital gains. As astute commentators have observed, the valuation of culture resides in the ways in which the notions of cultural heritage function in relation to the various communities linked with it. The increasing academic thrust today towards undertaking public history and public archaeology compels us to regard the ways in which ideational phenomena, such as cultural ethos and civilizational legacies, are shown as materially real. Processes of heritage-making are usually partisan, and exclusive, and, in this respect, the growing field of museum studies which interrogates curatorial protocols creates analytical spaces for interrogating that which is left out. The museum ethnography of today is very concerned with developing methods, through deep collaborative work, of inclusion and democratic practices. Museums of the West now aim at being contact zones—public spaces where visitors are able to unravel the politics of representation and critique creations of elite and partisan histories. The curatorial imperatives unpick the taken-for-granted status of museums as authoritative destinations and remind students that museums ought to surprise all, whatever their subject backgrounds, and help them see how institutions have the potential to be intercultural arenas of cultural production and consumption.

The shifting perceptions of what the public may properly see, where they may tread and with what new perspectives they may arrive at after their museum visit have also profoundly changed the protocols and practices of collections management. Curators now realize that they must constantly renew and rebuild old collections by bringing them into contact with other collections, and thereby provide the former with a different sociality. Which is why the re-installations of historical collections for public displays can never be neutral. With regard to issues of access, curators consider not only physical access to the collections in a particular museum but also the ways in which knowledge about those collections and about collecting practices is established and made available. They invest in issues of cultural property rights, they engage with contemporary source communities whose ancestral property and cultural heritage they manage and they aim at reflexive practices which demand interactions with museums as sites of fieldwork.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge—whose collection of historical photographs I have curated for around 8 years (1997–2005)—together with the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University have made pioneering efforts in reaching out, in a sustained and academic manner, to source communities. The MAA hosted its first exhibition, commemorating the centenary of the first defined ‘anthropological fieldwork’, in 1998, and used the occasion to actively reach out to the Torres Strait Islanders. Anthropological expeditions were made to the Torres Strait Island in 1898–99, by a team of scholars led by Alfred Cort Haddon (The slide of the team: Haddon, W. H. R. Rivers, Charles Seligman, Sidney Ray and Anthony Wilkins). Lead curator Anita Herle established a dynamic connection between the Islanders and their ancestral objects by reaching out to the elders of the various communities and inviting them to the MAA so that they could talk about what they knew of the histories of the objects’ manufacture and use. Thus, the turtle-shell masks, feather headdresses, models, photos and even the exhibition texts became viral links between the past and the present. This new configuration of the historical collections serves as the contact zone between Cambridge and the Torres Strait today, and also represents one of the main sources of inspiration for the modern art of the Islanders. A lot has been written about the ‘outcome’ of the exhibition and the lead it has provided for anthropological research into the seminal collections of the Pacific made during the early twentieth century and now housed in various European museums.[4]

Here I wish to illustrate one aspect of the curation, namely, the efforts towards visual repatriation. Reprints of photographs shot during the 1898 expedition were taken back to Torres Strait during the late 1990s, and the stories which the islanders could recall about the people in the images, and of the events and places, were added to the museum’s photographic database. That information created new knowledge about the collecting practices of the expedition, and about many of the photographs.

The success of the project inspired a selection of MAA’s photographs being brought to India for the first time. A collection of early-twentieth-century photographs of the Bhil community of Gujarat, taken and collected by colonial administrator William Archer, sculptor Marguerite Milward and others were brought to the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, in 2005. The Academy comprises a museum managed by members of the Rathwa Bhil community who live within the area. I saw a few photographs of them displayed in the Tejgadh Museum in September 2016. The plural meanings embedded in the photographs were, naturally, lost to me but I was informed that they had been ceremoniously carried to the museum by members of the Bhil community as objects of ancestral heritage. The reverence for the photographs as heritage objects encourages a critical regard of their viewing, which would allow us to glean aspects of their social lives and of the ways in which the historical photographs contribute to present-day self-fashioning of communities.

Museum transactions with its source communities often document the fragility of the latter’s rights to cultural property. In this respect, the creative uses of digital resources, including the sharing of museum databases, have allowed many communities to intervene in the acts of curating their cultural objects. Of the various projects of the MAA, Artefacts of Encounter was built upon the possibilities of long-distance cataloguing for the creation of a digital research environment. The project established two relational databases, of which Kiwa has allowed the input of data by dispersed research teams working from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Brazil, with collections in institutions across Europe, America and Australia. The foundational component was to build a digital repository of some of the treasured ancestral artefacts of the Maori community (artefacts which were kept in different museums) and to support a Maori community website. The databases permit a live feed of descriptions, allow modifications of earlier entries and the restructuring of templates for different uses. Needless to add, they also hide and show information differently for the consumption of different groups of the public in relation to what the elders, or the communities’ spokesmen, consider appropriate. Such databases are carefully designed to retain all information, maintain the integrity of the sources, and make visible the participatory aspects of digital networks in engendering new cultural codes of place, society, information and knowledge. The databases, therefore, hold saliency as cultural objects while coaxing us to concede that technology is functional precisely because of social interactions.

My emphasis on museum curation is driven by the truism that historians and archaeologists often neglect the manner in which data is created within museums and archives. Researchers often engage with the museum- and archive-catalogue cards as unimpeachable sources. However, institutional databases inform us about curatorial practices and encourage us to ask how sources are produced. Data curation also creates an acute awareness of the constructed-ness of cultural heritage. For in presenting members with artefacts of their cultural heritage, curatorial practices create realities about culture and heritage. Collections-based research, therefore, forces us to ask the question: Who speaks for culture? It helps us realize that source communities do not wait passively out there to be identified and included. The undertakings of ‘public history’ and ‘public archaeology’ demand critical enquiries into what is selected as source, and reflections regarding the strong curatorial directions which guide information from the source communities, and which show us that the writing of the past and the present often happen at the same time.

The postcolonial administration of Indian archaeology and museums is replete with examples of the conflicting interests of partisan, regional and national heritage-making schemes which convey the imperialism of postcolonial nationalism. For example, amendments to the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 entailed a fresh classification of the listed monuments for protection by the Centre for the states. The Act also gave Parliament the mandate of selecting monuments of national importance for the Union list. An early example of such conflicts which the act engendered was the Bombay Presidency’s claims to protect the rock-cut caves of Elephanta and Kanheri, which the Central government dismissed without due consideration. Another instance was the reluctance of the heads of the princely states to part with the antiquities they had loaned to the international exhibition of Indian art at London. On return of the exhibits to New Delhi in August 1948, the ruler of Bahawalpur, for example, was willing to give away the sculptures and the wooden works of art but not the paintings which the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India wanted and believed would enrich the collection of the National Museum. The ruler of Jaipur wrote to the Joint Secretary, Ministry of States, V. Shankar in 1951 that:

I regret it is not possible for me to transfer permanently to the museum exhibits from Jaipur sent for the Indian exhibition in London, as I have already created a national trust for the Jaipur art treasures. I feel very strongly that Jaipur, which has always been well known for its work of art and attracts a large number of scholars and tourists, should retain its valuable art relics to encourage local arts altogether, and not split them up.[5]

Ten years later, in 1959, Sawai Man Singh II established the Maharaja of Jaipur Museum, now known as the Sawai Man Singh II Museum. What is interesting to note is the manner in which the Indian government trivialized the princely states’ ‘parsimonious attitude’ towards contributions for a ‘national art’—an attitude well represented by the quip of a secretary of the Education Ministry who said, ‘They have not yet got rid of their attitude of suspicion. If we have a little patience, we shall be able to get them all.’[6]

The histories of museum-making in the colonial and postcolonial eras allow us to interrogate the competing claims of regional and national patrimonies. The Varendra Research Society in Rajshahi (now Bangladesh) allows us to map some of the intellectual histories of region- and nation-making at the cusp of British India’s moment of decolonization. The society was established with a museum, in 1910, at the behest of two Bengali antiquaries, Akshay Kumar Maitra and Ramaprashad Chanda, who solicited the support of the local zamindar of Dighapatia, Sarat Kumar Ray, for ‘promoting the study of archaeology, anthropology, history, literature and art in relation to India, with specific reference to Bengal.’ The members conceived of undertaking archaeological explorations and excavations in order to seek ‘the ethnic origin of the Bengali race’,[7] of which the most spectacular were the excavations at Paharpur, funded by the society and undertaken by Calcutta University in 1922.

The excavations at Paharpur brought to light the rich history of the Pala period, and thereby, Bengal’s ‘Golden Age’, and, according to the Society, ‘allow[ed] Bengalis to acquire knowledge of their ancient culture’ and were ‘of great importance to the nation as a whole’.[8] At once we note the conflations of region-making and nation-making. Unlike the Varendra Research Museum, which exhibited the significance of the ‘Bengali nation’ for the ancient ‘Indian nation’, the new Bihar Museum in Patna, opened to the public on 2 October 2017, aims at awakening the splendours of ancient Magadha by bringing to public consciousness the ancient civilization of modern Bihar as the glorious civilization of Ancient India. The Museum, however, is deemed ‘international’ in scope, and been built at great cost— more than Rs 40 crores—by a Japanese architectural firm, and expertise in collections management provided by consultants based in Canada. It has absorbed the archaeological collections of the Patna Museum that was established in 1917 with the intention of displaying the splendours of the new province of Bihar and Orissa after the vast area was separated from the Bengal province in 1912.

The similarities in the history-building endeavours of the colonial and present-day Bihar government are quite obvious. The new Bihar Museum has stripped the Patna Museum of all its prized antiquities, leaving it only with its zoological and eighteenth-century collections. The narrative of the Bihar Museum is simple: showcasing the deep antiquity of Bihar, from its prehistoric roots. The new displays, among which the Yakshi of Didarganj is presented as the mascot of the glorious civilization of ancient Bihar, brings no new histories, although the brief of the expert committee had been ‘to fill in the historical gaps within the topography of modern Bihar so that there are no dark ages’. The contradictions—I hope—are apparent to you all. The Bihar Museum represents the trend of the new Indian states to showcase the glorious ancient pasts of their brand-new territories—we may expect a more magnificent example from the Amaravati Archaeological Museum which is being commissioned by Andhra Pradesh to outshine the cultural institutions of Telangana from which the latter has been bifurcated.

The new galleries of the Bihar Museum have been planned with an anthropological segment showcasing the rich tribal history of Bihar that supposedly compares to the rich tribal history of the new state of Jharkhand created out of the former state of Bihar. Needless to add, the ‘tribals’ have not been consulted on the ethnographic displays of their cultural histories. The exclusion draws our attention to what a public museum in India that feigns inclusion and participatory processes continues to look like. One may add here that, despite the growing cries within India for the repatriation of specific objects and artifacts from many ‘western’ museums, including the UK for the Kohinoor, museums in India continue to invest very little in ensuring the rights of cultural property of the tribal groups or the janajatis who are now being Hinduized through spurious origin stories. Historicizing origins of things that cannot be seen reflects political acts, not scholarship.

The acts of heritage-making by Indians during the early twentieth century allow us to regard the imperialism of national politics. An example is the exhibition of the Inter-Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi five months before Indian Independence, the brainchild of Nehru who thought it would bring into public consciousness the lost unity of the Asian continent. Curated by the Museums Branch of the old Archaeological Survey of India, it was aimed at ‘illustrating one central theme: India’s cultural intercourse with other countries of Asia in the ancient world.’[9]

The exhibition remains the venue for the first public display of the artefacts of the Indus civilization in India. [I don’t have the time here, but I would also like to interrogate this whole notion of civilization which archaeologists create through trait-listing archaeological assemblages.] As you know, the Bronze Age archaeological civilization, retrieved through excavations during the 1920s, was of immense national value for the colonized Indians. As opening objects of the inter-Asian exhibition, the Indus objects—and I quote the curator V. S. Agrawala here, ‘put India on the archaeological map of the most ancient world, mark[ed] out this country as the builder of international contacts even in the remote proto-historic period of about 3000 bc’.[10] We need to remember that this was made more than 50 years ago, decades before the study of global economies and connected histories had begun to fashion precolonial South Asia’s historical scholarship. A careful study of the references of the Exhibition in the journals of the Museums’ Association provides reasons to suspect that the Indus objects were shown also to demonstrate the possibilities of extending the history of greater India into the third millennium bce. In retrospect, the aim of the display, to highlight ancient India’s achievements as a cultural colonizer on the eve of modern India’s decolonization, appears profoundly ironic. The politics of decolonization in South Asia, as we all know, is imbued with the Partition of 1947, the largest displacement of people in recorded human history and an event that entrenched the cause of religious nationalism. Archaeologically, as The Hindu had declared in 1949, the Partition appears to have been negotiated by a ‘fairy exchanging children hawkishly [. . .] a challenging experiment in the domination of geography by man [. . . .] In consequence we have lost Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, Barbaricon, the river that gave us a name, the cradle of the Rigveda, the homes of Panini and Kautilya, the seat of the famous university, the centre of great schools of art, and the kingdom of Brahman Shahis who, for long, were watchdogs of the north-western frontier of India.’[11]

Partition affected British India’s institutional assets; the steering body of the Partition Council also managed the divisions of the archives and collections, expensive camp and office furniture, and field and laboratory equipment of the central institutions of the colonial government. The Harappa Gallery of the National Museum in New Delhi presents a view of the Hindu culture of the Indus civilization through India’s core collections of artefacts from Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. These more than 15,000 objects, officially declared as India’s [Partitioned] share in 1948, have been prominently displayed by the National Museum since its inception in 1949. However, we would be right in conjecturing that the visitors who have thronged the galleries have remained ignorant of the fact that they are in the presence of a ‘partitioned’ collection.

Of the lesser valued divided goods is the pottery vase discovered during excavations at Mound F or, the ‘Great Granary Mound’ at Harappa. The find was recorded in the excavation report as ‘two rough carinated pottery vases marked with a cross on the concave upper portion’. India has only one vase (accession no. 2919);[12] we can expect the other—with a different accession number—in the collection of the National Museum in Karachi. However, the display of Indus and Taxila jewellery in the first four cases in the National Museum’s Ornament Gallery [Alankaar], ought to encourage curious visitors to pause and look again—they are confronted with many halved objects which evoke the idea that each is displayed without its pair. So a closer look at a girdle of carnelian reveals only one end spacer; and the ‘jadeite necklace’ in the same case, placed at the top, comprises partitioned halves of two bigger pieces re-fashioned for India in July 1949. Unlike the carnelian girdle, the jadeite necklace was physically spliced—it was found with seven pendants suspended on a thick gold wire. In order to divide the necklace, the gold wire was removed and the beads separated. India received an extra ‘pendant’ because Pakistan was allowed to retain a larger share of the gold jewellery from Taxila.[13]

In fact, the Minute of 29 July 1947 of the Archaeological Survey of India , Museums Branch, records: ‘Out of 145 objects of gold and silver jewellery in the Taxila Museum, only 47 have been brought to India and in terms of gold in tolas, about twice as much gold has been left behind in the Taxila Museum.’ The decision to partition these ornaments was approved by Mortimer Wheeler before he left India in 1948, and his note to N.P. Chakravarti, then Director General, ASI, reflects the matter-of-fact manner in which the division was undertaken. Curiously, the Indian government has chosen to remain non-reflective of the displays of the ornament since 1949. The labels of the objects have never informed museum visitors that they are being shown ‘half’ pieces. Yet, when in the 1990s, the government was asked by an American university, which was curating an exhibition on the Indus civilization and a scholarship, to loan the necklace and the girdle, it refused. That silence represents the conscious act of forgetting and erasures which nationalism nurtures.

The Harappa Gallery was refurbished specifically for the convention of the World Archaeology Congress in 1994—the only time it was held in India—to dazzle the international delegates. Yet another instance of the politics of curating national culture and the fundamentalism which embeds a nation-saving archaeology. The large introductory text panel of over a thousand words at the entrance informs visitors of Rudra worship, the existence of the Namaskara mudra, Yoga mudra, yoni pitta, rangashala in the Indus civilization and the achievements of the Indian archaeologists. In addition, visitors are shown truth-making photographs of objects in situ to impress upon them the veracity of the questionable finds, and more text panels inform them of various Hindu beliefs—for example, those related to death—which the third millennium bce objects ostensibly embody. It is also significant that the Gallery, despite being under the care of the prehistory section of the museum, is bereft of a proper narrative of the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent. The neglect towards curating the ‘primitive objects of primitive people’ adds to the conscious curation of modern Hinduism which traces its ancestral lineage through an urbane, achieving, sophisticated but hoary past. Moreover, the Harappa Gallery creates a hermetically sealed understanding of what constitutes and represents the ‘Harappan’. The exhibits are grouped into types—terracotta figures, ornaments, vessels, seals, gamesmen, toys, weights, objects of shell, bone, ivory and pottery. These classifications follow the precedents of the display of archaeological objects in the inter-Asian exhibition of Delhi in 1947.

The display and circulation of antiquities have, therefore, always served political and ideological ends. Yet, in our encounters with them, we are often led to reflect on how little we actually know of the past. For example, the striking statue of Kanishka exuding physical strength prompts us to ask: What did the local people make of it? What notions, if at all, of foreignness coloured their perceptions of the image of their king? Were they at all allowed to see the statue?

The visual and material qualities of objects impinge upon storytelling in ways which those who guide how they are to be viewed cannot control. The histories of their creation and consumption provide evidence of connected histories, and of their currency in the intellectual networks of knowledge- production. In reckoning with the agency of objects, we are made to look for the changing epistemologies of evidence, culture and heritage throughout histories and between societies, and in this the practices of curation show us the fallacy of imposing fixed meanings of culture, and caution us against the searches for civilizational legacies which archaeology and heritage-making schemes continue to demonstrate ‘as facts on the ground’ through the logic of analogy.

Question-and-Answer Session

Question. I am curious to know your thoughts on the attempts being made to develop multiple narratives and new ways of curating museums, such as in the new Partition Museum.

Guha. I have seen the Partition Museum. In fact, I talked about the Bihar Museum because I tried to write some of the text panels and labels for them. New ways of curating museums in India—no one is really considering the whole process of data curation. No one is thinking about what the data-entry fields should entail. There is something called Jatan, a database being made on a national level, followed by the National Museum in New Delhi, the Indian Museum in Calcutta, the CSMVS Bombay—not the Partition Museum because that is a private museum—and most of the national museums. But there too it is assumed that if one can write a label for an object and then display it amid beautifully painted walls, amid galleries of steel and glass, then that is all that is required to curate in a ‘new’ way. But is that correct? Are you really providing anyone with new information? The Partition Museum is, of course, a museum with no objects—only pictures, snippets. I have seen the history of partition curated at the Manchester Museum by Reena Kallat. Where were objects in that? There were objects she had gathered, but that was, of course, the Partition of the Indians as people remembered it in Britain.

A lot has been written on the Partition Museum here. Those of you who come from artistry or social anthropology will know of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s work. I do not see any of that being translated into the Partition Museum. It has to evoke a memory—but how it it creating a Partition memory today? We have suppressed our Partition memories for so long and so extensively . . . The histories of memory-building of the Partition from 1947 till today—that is what the museum had a chance to do if it had taken a good look at the Holocaust museums around the world. That has not happened.

Question. I’ve read about Rahul Sankrityana’s collection at the Patna Museum, and the family contesting it because it is not completely a government museum.

Guha. It is completely a government museum. The whole idea was to strip the Patna Museum of all its collection. Except the zoological collections, and those from the eighteenth century because they are not considered valuable as artefacts—they are new. So the eighteenth-century ‘ugly’ things made in Bihar have been left back at the Patna Museum. But what is ironic is that the Patna Museum was built exactly for the same purpose that the Bihar Museum was built for, when Bihar (and Orissa) became a state in 1912. That is when it was decided that a regional museum was needed to showcase the glories of that ancient state. And this is what nationalism is about. You are talking about a hoary past of a nation which is new. India was formed in 1947, but we want a prehistory of India. That is what these museum buildings show us—that nationalism is all about stretching back something to a time when it did not exist.

Question. I work on metadata and how metadata is political and how we should be co-creating metadata with the source communities are working with. But my question is to do with traditions of collections. The aboriginal communities in Australia, for example, have a content-management system called Mukurtu which allows them to observe cultural protocols around their own objects. So what I am asking is whether there is a tension between the museum—as a colonial legacy of collection and Enlightenment thinking about taxonomy—and these source communities working with these museums rather than creating their own archives and digital spaces.

Guha. There is a huge amount of tension and conflict that curators are now trying to address. Not address in terms of trying to smooth it out, but to make that tension transparent. Because why would a source community give its information willingly? It would also like to have a museum, it would also like to have its own archives, it would also like to curate things in a different manner—why would it want to hand it all over to a government? With the Torres Strait Islanders who were not given legal rights to the land, this conflict has been brewing for the past 30 years. So yes, there is tension, but the only thing a curator can do in terms of that is to think of the metadata. In archaeology, we used to talk about middle-range theory—these are bridging moments/elements in our heads when we jump from one conclusion to the other. So, when I write a caption or a label or I do what I simply call data entry, I have these notions of metadata in my mind. And I think what is coming up increasingly in the labels and text panels of museums—especially the ethnography museums—is to make that tension transparent in the label. The way we derive our inferences—let’s just make that transparent.

Chintan Modi. I work on the Education for Peace initiative with Prajnya which is in Chennai. When I went to the United States recently, I found that museums play a very significant role in education for peace, human rights and social justice. What would it be like if we thought of doing something similar in India? Have there been attempts to make, sat, a Dalit history museum or a museum which tells the history of the women’s movement? Because these are histories that are completely absent in textbooks. What would it be like if there were public education initiatives like this?

Guha. I have worked very little in Indian museums. I received a fellowship at the National Museum in 2015 as a Tagore Scholar, and my research was to catalogue and refurbish the Harappa Gallery—sadly that did not happen. I had to leave because they wouldn’t open the cases for me. I have worked a little at the Bihar Museum, just trying to guide them a bit and telling them things like ‘Please don’t have text panels depicting “the glory of ancient Bihar” because it doesn’t make any sense!’

I don’t work in museums any longer—I teach history at a university. Sometimes I take my undergraduate students to museums. After about half an hour, I have a bunch of bored young people around me. And no matter how much I try to make the visit engaging, they just say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s OK . . . can we get out and do something else?’

Such things don’t happen abroad, where they worry far more about outreach and interaction with the public. In Cambridge, for example, they have something called ‘the week of ideas’, during which schoolchildren are taken to museums in the dark. They take a torch with them and see the collections by the light of the torch only. They are allowed to stay there and are supposed to come up with completely unique, individual ideas at daybreak when they are let out. These are probably ways of gathering some ideas about what children would like to see in a museum or what they derive from a visit to the museum.

Here, at the National Museum in Delhi, the Piprahwa case gives you something to think about. The relics were found through excavations during the late nineteenth century. Archaeologists would say much of the context has been lost. There is a book written about it by Charles Allen, Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the 20th Century, where he has mentioned the scandals. But what do we see in the gallery?—we see scores of Buddhist visitors who treat the gallery as a site of pilgrimage They see nothing else of the National Museum.

There has been a lot written, for example by Kavita Singh, about whether museums should be allowed to be a site of religion and worship. Do you see the contradiction? Curators are saying: we would like visitors to engage with these objects. But the minute they try to engage in ways that are considered erroneous, the engagements are questioned. At the British Museum once, they had a Durga pratima, from Calcutta. It was during the Voices of Bengal exhibition in 2006, curated by Richard Blurton. And there was a lot of criticism mostly in the manner of: ‘How could you do this in a museum? Why are you placing a goddess for worship in a museum space?’ But perhaps what is important to consider is the dialogue that happens when such ‘aberrations’ are curatorially facilitated—in this case, the presence of the Durga provided a space to address the issue of museums as religious spaces.

Question. I have a couple of short questions. How educated are the curators at Indian museums? Who decides on the storytelling? And the part about educated curators strikes me because, as a child, I used to visit the Indian Museum in Calcutta. There used to be a skeleton of a mammoth. Last year, I went after several decades and discovered that the tusks of the elephant had been painted white with acrylic paint!

Guha. Well, the education of the curators . . . I will simply tell you what curators are supposed to have—they are supposed to have a degree, the same one I have, an MA in Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology (AIHCA). I have it from Deccan College in Pune. These kind of prescriptions, of what you need to have to be a museum curator or to be a superintendent of archaeology, were drawn up in 1960 when the Diploma of Archaeology came into being. They have continued since. Curators in university museums abroad would be from different departments. So, for the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (such as MAA, Cambridge), you would have different curators trained in archaeology or anthropology. Yet there are problems of having subject curators as well, because, irrespective of the discipline to which the collection is allotted, curators ought to be intellectually willing to engage with the all of the collections. They ought to regard the changing histories of collections and exhibitions. They ought to frequently think about what their exhibitions have led to in terms of history-making? This never gets talked about. And we aklso know that most museum objects languish unseen as part of reserve collections. We all know what happened with the Indian Museum when it was painted and renovated. But, instead of lamenting about it, it would help if something was done. And there you see the tension of engaging the public in the curatorial role—nothing seems to happen. Can we not talk about it? Can we not have conferences where we can discuss these issues?

Anjum Katyal. We were just wondering about some of the schoolteachers here in the audience: if you have experiences of engaging with museums through your classes, with your children or even as individuals. Can we have at least one or two teachers asking something about trying to use the museum as part of teaching? As part of the classroom work or extra-classroom work?

Meenakshi. I teach at the Indraprastha College of Women at Delhi University. As a part of my endeavour to make students interested in history, I often organize field trips for them. In recent years, at least over the last two years, we have been visiting the National Archives so that the students have a sense of what a manuscript looks like—they can see it from close quarters, and somebody in the Oriental Section can explain to them the different ways in which these archives are formatted. For example, the subtle differences between a farman and a nishan and so on. Often the students are bored with these displays—as you mentioned too. On one particular occasion, there was an exhibition of paintings and images from the Deccan—it was called the Noras. Though it was a very attractive display, I had a problem with the narrative. And that is where I think—and this is closely related to the point you were making about the qualifications of a curator—we need a very strong intervention from somebody who knows the basic narrative or the context in which this curation has to be done and displayed. I understand that there are other problems. If the narrative is of a particular kind, for example, like the grand narrative of a national history, that creates one kind of a problem. But, for schoolchildren especially or university students, you need one basic narrative so that they have a sense of chronology of things that are on display.

Guha. True. But the point is that when you have a narrative, when you have any narrative, you are actually giving the authority to the curators. So sometimes, what these smaller museums do—and this is something that probably the Partition Museum should have done—is to have a space where visitors can create their own narratives of the exhibits/collections. This is why I mentioned Kiwa, where whoever wants to engage, can. Everybody does not want to look at objects and is not interested. But if you are, and if you want to say something or you have some information, there ought to be a way which is equally formal way of recording that information which then feeds back into the museums’ database. The ‘public’ then feels more included within the museums’ narratives or storytelling. What we have in most museums is a little book in which you say whether you liked the exhibits. Or you have outreach teachers with sheets for jotting ideas, but the completed sheets then get thrown away. Nobody incorporates the information that the museum gets—and the amount of information it gets every day is amazing!

With the National Archives—I have never done Sanskrit, so I can’t say, but I do have family members who do this. But Sanskritists today, for example, are not simply saying that this word means this or that—they are looking at genealogies of manuscripts, and trying to find the stemma (sometimes they are unable to find it, which also provides information), looking at how a manuscript has been used, when it was written—not only why it was written but also the person who then read it and what he made of it. And these things, the traces of what we may glibly call life histories or social biographies of objects—that is what they are trying to record.

Now, how are we going to show that to students or children whom we take into the National Museum so that they know what a manuscript looks like? In my mind, because I have done it in Cambridge with the photo archives, one way to make it participatory is with the use of digital technology which enamours everybody—everyone thinks they are doing brilliant work by inputting something into a computer rather than writing it with a pen. So be it. What is important is that we include that information and make it transparent, make it public—and databases allow you to do that. You can make databases with 20 pages worth of data, but then what comes up in the public is a very brief entry. This can be done very easily through technology—it all depends on how we interact with it. But often the imagination or the will is lacking—the attitude is ‘it is not needed’ or ‘they are just schoolchildren, why should we record their data? They are not important enough’—that happens, and we talk about democracy! So, all this feeds into culture as well because the whole notion of culture is: ‘This is your culture’ vs ‘This is archaeological culture’. It all comes down to boundaries.

Roshni. I teach alternative history in a small school in Bangalore and, every year, I take my sixth-standard students to the Government Museum in Bangalore. The collection is not very large but I find that the students are very excited when they visit the museum and we usually spend about an hour there. There is a small section with a few artefacts from Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, and we time our visit to after we have studied the Indus Valley civilization. Their eyes light up at the sight of these artefacts. But I find the collection to be rather disjointed—and I do not know whose story the museum is trying to tell. What I want to ask you is: what are some of the ways in which students can engage with museums, with their curators? Do you think there are people we can write to, to see if they will take ideas from children?

Guha. If I try to answer these questions, then we will remain here indefinitely because each museum will have its own set of problems. But when you say the stories are disjointed, I will say ‘Great!’—because every story is not connected. Certain things can be disjointed. Let people use their imagination and think about how they would join them up.

Question. I wanted to ask whether responding to visitors’ views or people’s opinions is always positive or productive for improving a museum. I ask this because I have seen a major change at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum over two visits spanning approximately 15 years. The first was in the late 1980s when the museum galleries displayed, at the very entrance, horrific images of the aftermath of an atomic explosion. And as you moved on into the museum, you found more information about the war, Japan’s participation in it and so on. On my second visit, about 15 years later, I was shocked to see that the entrance gallery had been entirely sanitized and all the objects which would have represented the horror of a nuclear explosion had been taken away. When I asked where they were, I was told that they had been removed to a special gallery on the top floor for visitors who were specifically interested in them. The main galleries were about information on the war, the ports, why Hiroshima was chosen and so on, entirely displayed with the help of digital technology—there were no objects.

I was curious about this change, but also angry and disappointed. So I went to the chief curator and asked why this was so. His response was brief and categorical: ‘Visitors did not appreciate the horrific images displayed at the museum. Visitors not only from the US but also from within Japan. Japan would now like to move on rather than stay stuck with those horrible memories. They are available for those who are especially interested—so you are welcome to visit the top floor.’

I felt that was a sad thing to happen because if that museum had made an impact on me as a visitor, it was mainly because it brought alive for me the horror of the atom bomb. Now it is simply a museum which gives you a lot of information. It certainly responds to Japan’s new nationalism which would like Japan to be a nation like any other that has moved on.

Guha. You have answered your own question! These exhibits, what they exhibit, how they exhibit, what kind of stories they say are fashioned sometimes by politics, sometimes the way a society wants to remember something—which can be outside politics, although I don’t think it ever is . . . These bring about changes. There is no answer to any of this. These are instances, these are what museum practices do, these are things for us to think about. And the reason I draw museums into my work is because history-writing very rarely engages with it. Archaeologists, who should know better because they work with artefacts, also do not engage with it, and I find that problematic in terms of the method.


Sudeshna Guha teaches History at Shiv Nadar University. She was trained in field archaeology at Deccan College, Pune and has worked for over a decade in museums, in the UK and also in India.

[1] A. R. Smith, ‘Authenticity, Antiquity and Archaeology’, Nations and Nationalism, 7:4 (2001): 441–9; here, p. 442. [2]M. Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions (London: Routledge, 2016,3rd edn), p. 99. [3]Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy, p. 100. [4]Cf. A. Herle and S. Rouse, Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition, Cambridge. Examples of the Kinds of Research the Exhibition Inspired: Art in Oceania: A New History (2013) and the MAA project ‘Pacific Presences’ (2013-18). [5]Letter from Maharaja of Jaipur, Rambagh Palace, to V. Shankar, 11 December 1951, D. No. 7616-L/49 Serial No. 4, Appeal issued to certain States/Unions for the donation of certain exhibits lent formerly to the GOI, to the Central National Museum, File No 4(13)-L/49, NAI (National Archives of India). [6]Report of the Secretary, Ministry of States, 27/12/49, File No 4(13)-L/49, NAI (National Archives of India). [7]Annual Report of the Varendra Research Society, 1933–1934, January 1934, p. 1, Rajshahi (East Bengal). [8]Annual Report of the Varendra Research Society, For the Year ending March 31, 1949, Rajshahi (East Pakistan), p. 1. [9]V. S. Agrawala, ‘Inter-Asian Exhibition of Art and Archaeology’, Journal of Indian Museums 3 (1947): 28–37; here, p. 28. [10]Agrawala, ‘Inter-Asian Exhibition of Art and Archaeology’, p. 29. [11]The Hindu 6 March 1949, in a review of a new volume of Ancient India (4) (July 1947–January 1948). [12]M. S. Vats, Excavations at Harappa: Being an Account of Archaeological Excavations at Harappa carried out between the Years 1920-1921 and 1933-34 (Calcutta, 1940), p. 33. The object is in Case 19 in the Harappa Gallery. The artefacts in the Gallery were research-catalogued by me during my tenure as Tagore Scholar in the National Museum (2015–16). [13]A detailed history of the partitioning and the Indian politicking of the ‘spoils’ is in a forthcoming essay: S. Guha, ‘Antiquities for a Nation: The Harappa Gallery of the National Museum of India’ in S. Klamm and E. Hoffenberg (eds.), Antiquity and Reconstruction (berlin: De Gruyter).

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