The arts and crafts museums of democracy

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The current regime must check whether its Raisina Hill project complies with the obligation to promote democratic principles

The current regime must check whether its Raisina Hill project complies with the obligation to promote democratic principles

Inaugurating the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya on the grounds of Teen Murti House in New Delhi on April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the new museum would help young people appreciate the expansion of constitutional government since independence. However, on this occasion, he did not provide an update on ongoing efforts to convert the buildings in the north and south blocks which flank Rashtrapati Bhavan and currently house the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Interior, defence, finance and external affairs in India. largest museum.

Projected narrative

The last press release was published five months ago. He said the new museum on Raisina Hill will open by 2026 and “will vividly demonstrate different aspects of India or Bharat that have always existed in a cultural and spiritual sense, even though historical demands have prevented the accession to nationality”. Based on museum projects funded by the current administration, it’s plausible that this narrative is primarily conveyed through augmented reality experiences, computerized kinetic sculptures, holograms, and smartphone apps. The current Janpath National Museum will be dismantled and most of its collections transferred to storage. It is important that the new museum is not haunted by the specters of a colonial past and can respond to a fundamental obligation: the promotion of democratic principles.

Great art museums appeared in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries alongside the rise of nations, colonial empires and industrialization. Take the case of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Among the largest and most visited museums in the world today, it was founded during the French Revolution when rebels forced open to Parisians vast collections of painting and statuary previously held by absolute monarchs. of France. Over the next 150 years, the Louvre inspired a new national consciousness by using its lavish halls to showcase the aesthetic, social and scientific achievements of the French people. His exhibits compare them to the “slow progress” of other civilizations. Over time, this model has spread to other emerging countries to empower their audiences. After decolonization, Western-style museums were built in newly independent countries to reinforce their national narratives.

So the current regime’s plan to showcase a bold new India by developing a sprawling museum on Raisina Hill, perhaps largely devoid of historical artefacts, is a paradoxical throwback to an older era when the primary purpose of a museum was to nurture patriotism and showcase triumph. . In the tumultuous times in which we live, is it possible to imagine that the new museum will recognize India’s continuing diversity, including its many conflicts, consider cultural heritage as a process forcing museum visitors to actively engage with a past both inspiring and despairing, and serve as a space to promote democracy?

Make room for transparency

One strategy the new museum could adopt to aspire to these goals is to exhibit the entire collection of the National Museum. Or, at least as much of the collection as can be safely displayed – ensuring that non-reproducible antiques are not subjected to excessive heat, cold drafts, humidity and light raw. It is a difficult task. If executed carefully, then it can allow the institution to begin to dismantle the hierarchies that have privileged some objects as masterpieces and relegated others to lesser works and copies. Such a strategy can also establish that the meanings of works of art are not fixed but change at different points in their lives, including the contexts in which they are exhibited. It can also promote accountability and make the difficult work of administering a leading cultural institution transparent to a wider audience. At the same time, the new museum could emulate Charles Correa’s commitment to creating accessible contrapuntal spaces in public buildings. Auditoriums, courtyards, concert halls and cafes can promote peace and spark conversation.

Alternatively, by forming alliances with other institutions and showcasing the connected history of India and the world, the new museum can aspire to help visitors become better informed citizens. A gallery could display seals to highlight the contacts between and between the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Rhytons and statuary explaining the entanglements between Achaemenid Persepolis and Mauryan Pataliputra can be placed in a second gallery. A third gallery may house coins and portraits to show how the Kushans who ruled Mathura in the early centuries AD maintained ties with their nomadic clans in the Central Asian steppe. A fourth group of rooms may bring together textiles and woodcarvings to tell the story of traders moving between East Africa and Gujarat. A fifth gallery could feature microarchitectural ensembles and leather puppets to reconstruct the flows across the Bay of Bengal and along the arcing waterways from the Deccan to the Arakan. A sixth suite of rooms could focus on albums of calligraphy and miniature painting to unravel the forces that divided the peoples of the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman empires. Etc.

Laboratory of the future

A third strategy would be to think of the new museum as a laboratory ̥ for the future, that is, as a sustainable and versatile building dedicated to extracting new stories and promoting new deliberations. In it, a suite of galleries displaying various everyday artefacts – sickles, pitchers and phulkaris – may provoke reflection on how a mosaic of villages and their agricultural lands were acquired by colonial authorities to build the Delhi of Lutyens. Another set of galleries displaying artifacts showing how minorities attempted to negotiate their positions vis à vis majority regimes can inspire artists, scholars and young people to come together, challenge assumptions and develop new works.

These are just a few tactics. Certainly, they must be refined or even rejected. However, it is clear that the question of how the buildings in the northern and southern blocks will be quickly transformed into the country’s largest museum that aspires to tell the story of India is too important to be attributed to a few individuals.

Essential Thoughts

Contemporary artists in collaboration with future-oriented museums in the country are already debating this question. Jitish Kallat’s tiny painted clay models of street violence, safely housed in British-era display cases in Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, draw attention to hallowed historical narratives in public institutions and those which remain unknown. The watercolors, oils and mixed media from Atul Dodiya’s 7000 Museum Series exhibited in the same museum give shape to what a host of cultural institutions across India might look like and the types of artifacts that they can shelter. Following Kallat and Dodiya, let’s examine and articulate what the past means to us and ask ourselves what is worth saving and why. In class, on the street, on stage and on screen. Such reflections will also help us imagine how we might eventually come together responsibly at the new Raisina Hill Museum of Art to continue to shape a culture of democracy.

Nachiket Chanchani is Associate Professor of South Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.

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