The existing European museums such as the British Museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, and the Louvre in Paris, were substantially collections of what were believed to be objects of interest and importance pertaining to the past and creating a European identity. The museum acquired, collected, conserved, and exhibited these objects. The museum also became a centre for advanced research. This required an up-to-date reference library of books and journals, open to public membership. The library of the British Museum in the 19th century was more than just a museum library. It was home to a variety of intellectuals who through their research and theories have changed the face of the globe in different ways.

The library would now be added a phototec and a conservation unit. In conservation the controversy over the degree to which the object should be changed in order to conserve it, was solved in Europe by arguing for the minimum. In India, the restoration of objects to their original forms can sometimes have distinctly unhappy results.

Another dimension is introduced when objects are viewed as items of heritage contributing to the identity of the society. This is the point at which history entered the functioning of the museum. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the hegemonic history of India in colonial times, was that of James Mill, The History of British India, published from 1817. It was, therefore, contemporary with the establishing of the Indian Museum. Was there a link between the two? It can be argued that the understanding of the Indian past at that time, rooted as it was in colonial interpretations, was in turn reflected both in the histories of the time and in the display of major museums.

As noted earlier, Mill periodized the history of India into Hindu, Muslim, and British, a periodization that still lingers despite its having no basis. Museum displays often follow this idea. Chronology can be maintained without giving objects dynastic labels. Where a dynasty has ruled briefly such as the Shunga, can a sculpture be accurately ascribed to this dynastic period, or would it not be better to give a somewhat broader time bracket? Sometimes the technical form is more helpful in understanding the nature of change. Whereas mural painting is profuse in early centuries of the first millennium ad, it is miniature painting that is more common later in the second millennium ad. What accounts for this radical change? Surely not just the use of paper, however significant this may have been. Changes in court fashions and styles have multiple explanations.

Chronology itself is multifaceted. The past has its own genealogy onto which we impose our chronology. The French historian Fernand Braudel spoke of the three dimensions of time relevant to every historical event. These are, the moment when the event happens, then the broader context of the event, and finally the long duration – the many centuries that mould the landscape of the event. To this has been added the fourth, namely, the point in time when the observer perceives the object in a museum. I am not suggesting that the chronology of each object should have these three time measurements, but only that the consciousness of these may be reflected in statements on chronology.

With some rare exceptions, the display of objects in our museums tend to follow the periodization based on religion and dynasty rather than considering other categories. Yet historical periodization itself has now changed to a considerable degree. A search for new classifications could be a useful cross-disciplinary study between historians and curators.

This is also tied into the labels given to objects. These tend to be minimalistic, giving information on dynasty and, if required, on religious identity. This is perfectly legitimate provided they carry a precise meaning and sufficient information. But such requirements are generally lacking. Where an icon or frieze is taken from the external niche of a façade, this needs to be stated with some explanation of why it was placed where it was initially, preferably with some graphic presentation of its original location. Where a painting was part of an illustrated manuscript, we need to be told what the text was about and why it was commissioned, and by whom, and the incident is being depicted in the painting, in addition to the name of the artist and the date. Even where there are paintings of familiar stories, there is a need to draw attention to special features.

All this means lengthier labels and more work for the curators but without that the purpose of the museum is defeated. It also means that labels have to be constantly updated and corrected. Where the information in a label is controversial, this should at least be mentioned. If all the objects belong to a single dynasty, then various links evoking the period can help provide a context.

I am not suggesting that every gallery should be a textbook in itself, but explaining why the gallery is arranged the way it is and justifying the arrangement and what it is attempting to say, would be a necessary addition. And for the visitor it provides accessible ways by which the object can be understood both in isolation and as part of a collection. Fortunately, there are many electronic devices now that can be employed quite easily for this purpose of providing background knowledge.

Curators, art historians, and other scholars may well be familiar with the history and value of the objects on display. For them, the museum as a place that houses, conserves, and exhibits a collection of antiquities and historical artefacts, may be sufficient. But the function of the museum today is far larger in its role as educating citizens. These two aspects are interrelated. If the display does not give access to knowledge it ceases to be of value in educating the public. Thus if a museum claims to project a visual representation of Indian civilisation to the public it has to be aware of the more recent discussions on what constitutes civilisation. Does the concept still continue to convey what it might have done a century ago?

Educating the public through museums has its own problems. An object exhibited in isolation with just a brief label loses its meaning. What the public sees is partial, limited generally to its aesthetic quality. The German literary critic Walter Benjamin has argued that any object thus exhibited is embedded in a tradition and if one is seeking for the aura of the object it lies in the tradition. Others would argue that the museum liberates the object from its tradition and introduces other facets in its appreciation. But then these facets have to be indicated.

The museum is also the location of what is regarded as heritage. There are problems with defining heritage. It draws from a constellation of past events. What we regard as our heritage today may not be the same as what our ancestors believed was the heritage they were bestowing on coming generations, no matter how far back we go. It might be salutary to remember that for many centuries people did not know of the emperor Ashoka and his concept of dhamma. His is just one among dozens of names in the Puranic king lists. Only the Buddhists remembered him and they were silenced by mediaeval times. He was rediscovered in the 19th century. But today he is viewed as part of our national heritage that continued unbroken for over two millennia. How did this happen and why? We have a diverse and multi-layered heritage, and as with the construction of all national heritage we face the problem of selecting the cultures that we regard as national. The cultures of the dominant communities invariably get pride of place even if the attempt is to present a homogenised packet as a national culture, as is preferred by most that call themselves a ministry of culture. This does not always reflect the sensitivities of a heritage constituted by multiple cultures. The definition of heritage has to become more inclusive.

The Western world has defined its culture in a linear trajectory, but it is now facing the pressure of immigrant communities bringing their own heritage. It will be fascinating to see how their national cultures will be defined a couple of centuries from now when immigrants will be integrated into their societies. It will be equally interesting to see how the immigrants in the diaspora will define their heritage brought from the home country. The constituents of this image will inevitably include the imaginary and this will increase over time.

A museum carries a message. In colonial days it was the message of presenting a past, and incidentally in doing so, also glorifying what colonial scholarship had done for the colony. This effort deserves appreciation, although not by ignoring its motivation. But two centuries later the contours have changed – both in terms of what the museum stands for and what are its functions. The appeal is no longer to colonial authority but to a public being made aware of and seeking to articulate its identity.

This it seems to me is a major change in the concept of the museum since the last two hundred years. The ingredients of this identity are complex since they are no longer just the narrow definitions of 19th century scholarship. The identity has to reflect a society constituted of many cultures each seeking visibility. It is not only a recognition of our culture but also of the many other cultures of which we are increasingly becoming a part, and to which we are contributing. Such a reflection is not an impossible task. But it needs both sensitivity and an understanding of the interface between cultures.

The future of the museum requires us to think again about the museum as an institution. It is not enough that objects are displayed. We have to think about how this is done and why it is done the way it is. Are there other more effective and pertinent ways? The purpose of the museum has changed as it is bound to with conceptual changes in how we view the past and relate it to our present society, and how we use the past. As with the writing of history the museum also represents mediation between the past and us. And the past is not something out there, it is a part of us. We need to understand the past, not in isolation but in context. I can only repeat the sentiment often repeated, that a museum should make the invisible visible.

Excerpted with permission from The Future in the Past: Essays and Reflections, Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company.