Three major cultural institutions are slated for demolition to make way for the Central Vista project in Delhi – the National Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Annexe of the National Archives. But if three existing institutions are being cleared, it should be noted that the plans for the redeveloped Vista set aside three other buildings that will remain within the Vista for museums.

These three museum-designates are among the most majestic buildings in Lutyens’ complex. The North and South Blocks, which till now have housed key ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office, have been earmarked for museums that will showcase “The Making of India” and “India at 75”. So far, however, no details are available about the nature of these museums, what they will exhibit and hold, and what their relationship with the displaced institutions will be. In addition, when Parliament moves into its new building, the current Parliament House, we are told, will become a “Museum of Democracy”.

Museum enthusiasts such as myself should be celebrating the allocation of such important buildings as an upgrade granted to museums in the new plan. Instead, I find it raises important questions about modern India’s conception of what a museum is and the purpose it is meant to serve. The decision to convert buildings that are now too outdated to serve their original function into museums reminds me of another grand project, taken up 71 years ago, for which ground had to be cleared, old structures had to be demolished and a museum had to be invented to shelter the resultant debris.
Master Plan for Central Vista, New Delhi 2019. Credit: HCP

This older project was the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat shortly after Independence. Legend has it that this wealthy temple was destroyed 17 times by Muslim invaders, and each time was rebuilt by Hindu rulers, only to be pulled down again. The most recent rebuilding of Somnath that was famously initiated by Sardar Patel in the 1950s is cherished in Hindutva memory as a mark of “taking the country back” after two centuries of colonialism and a millennium under Muslim dynasties.

But the rebuilding of the Somnath temple in the 1950s was also the occasion of an eighteenth demolition of the shrine that has remained unacknowledged. For standing on the Somnath site was a substantial portion of the temple sponsored by the Solanki king Kumarapala in 1167 CE. If it were allowed to survive, this structure would have been too historically valuable to be altered and enlarged and it would have been too fragile for heavy use. It would have had to be treated as an historical monument.

But what Patel and others desired was a living temple, with active worship and capable of drawing pilgrims. The existing monument was an inconvenience and it had to be pulled down. In 1950-’51, the Somnath temple was taken apart and its stones dumped in a new “Prabhas Patan Museum”, which till today looks like a warehouse where sculptures languish in utter disarray.

Ironically – or perhaps expectedly – on social media we now see posts where the disordered fragments in the museum are presented as evidence of Islamic iconoclasm rather than post-Independence “reconstruction”.

Photograph of the Somanatha Temple at Somnath, Prabhas Patan, in Gujarat, from the west. Photograph taken in c. 1869 by D.H. Sykes, from the Archaeological Survey of India. Credit: D.H. Sykes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What purpose does the “museum” serve in Prabhas Patan? Its main utility seems to be to provide a place to which inconvenient and obsolete items can be consigned without guilt. Once placed there, the sculptures have not received any of the attention one expects from a museum – of preservation, interpretation and display.

Instead, the mere application of the word “museum” to what is essentially a warehouse has allowed a destructive act to be veiled in the rhetoric of care. Unfortunately, the Prabhas Patan example serves as a distressingly accurate metaphor for museums in general in India, and the Central Vista’s museum plans in particular.

In theory, a museum has professional obligations towards three constituencies: objects, knowledge and people. When museums are given custodianship of precious artefacts, they are charged with caring for them. This involves the conservation of damaged objects but also prevention of future damage by regulating conditions for storage and display. International best practices, for instance, limit the number of months that textiles or paintings can be exposed to light before they are rested, to prevent fading.

Storage too has to be calibrated for the needs of different media: bronze sculptures, muslin fabrics, fresco fragments and palm leaf manuscripts all need to be kept under different temperature and humidity conditions if they are to survive.

Centres of study

A second purpose of museums is the production of knowledge about the artefacts they hold but also about the contexts from which the artefacts were extracted. Traditionally, museums rivalled universities as centres of study; museum curators researched and published, but also facilitated the research of others into the collections they held.

For both these functions, the museum’s essential first step is a full and publicly accessible inventory record of its collection, where every artefact is photographed, and information about it is compiled and made available. This inventory does not just facilitate research, but provides an essential reference for repair or recovery if an artefact is damaged or stolen.

Thirdly, museums are by definition public institutions – this is what differentiates a museum from a mere collection. They have an obligation to the people they serve. They have a duty to facilitate public access to the museum and its objects – both physically, by allowing public to enter the premises, and also intellectually through outreach, through informing, educating, delighting and entertaining, but also through listening, responding and caring for the public’s needs.

Although India has built many museums, unfortunately the majority of them remain mere depositories for materials, with little done to meet the triple obligations towards objects, knowledge and the public interest.

The Kushana gallery in the National Museum. Credit: Nomu420, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A stately structure

When India’s National Museum was founded shortly after Independence, it was energised by the aspirations of a new nation. A significant collection was built up through transfers from the archaeological survey and through purchases and gifts from private collectors. For ten years the National Museum was housed in Rashtrapati Bhavan, until its own building at the crossroads of Rajpath and Janpath was completed.

Unlike most of the office buildings that were constructed on a shoestring budget in the 1950s, no expense was spared for the National Museum building, which was intended to be a showpiece. A stately structure, modern but citing traditional Indian architecture in a way that updated Lutyens’ vocabulary, it was designed by GB Deolalikar of the Central Public Works Department (who also designed the Supreme Court) and it was constructed using the best quality teak and stone available at the time.

On Nehru’s instance, an international search was mounted for a director who would bring the latest international standards to the new museum. Thus it was that Grace McCann Morley, an expert with the International Council of Museums in Rome and previously the pathbreaking director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, became the founding director of the National Museum.

The art historical knowledge that informed the museum’s exhibits came from the Indian scholars such as VS Agrawala and C Sivaramamurti, but the cool and spare elegance of the galleries was hers. Over time the energies animating the museum dissipated. Just as the building lost its elegance and clarity with the accretion of plyboard divisions and portacabins, so too bureaucratisation, internal politics, chronic understaffing and ineffective recruitment processes affected the quality and creative freedom of the museum staff. In recent years only a few brief phases or events have given us a sense of what the museum can do or be.

No consultation

Today as the National Museum faces demolition and relocation, the opacity surrounding these plans only underlines the utter irrelevance, in the minds of the powers-that-be, of the museum’s relationship with either the general public that the museum should serve, or with specialists who should have a stake in its future. Not only has there been no open consultation, there has not even been an announcement about what the future of the museum will be.

Will the National Museum in fact move to North and South Block? If so, how will the museum’s collections of Indus Valley artefacts, archaeological fragments, manuscripts, textiles, paintings, decorative arts fit into museums of the “Making of India” or an “India at 75” that have been announced for North and South Block?

Will the National Museum remain a museum of art and culture, or will artefacts be folded into a museum that narrates history through texts and reproductions as well? Where will the reserves of the museum’s collection be housed, and what arrangements will be made for preventive conservation in storage, both in the interim – which is likely to stretch for several years – and in the long term?

What plans has the Museum made to address the shortage of qualified staff and to upgrade facilities such as the conservation laboratories? Most crucially, what steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the collection, to prevent losses of priceless artefacts in transit? How will the integrity of the collection be ensured, given that even now, in this digital age, there is no full inventory of the museum’s collection, not every artefact has even been photographed, and the accession registers have not been digitised, and whatever catalogue records exist are not accessible to members beyond the museum staff? At the very least, there needs to be an independent auditor to take stock of the collections, as they are packed, and then as they are unpacked.

Out of bounds

If we are to be presented with a new National Museum in a few years, surely this was a project that needed to seek feedback from the Museum’s existing employees and draw in expert planning and advice. This could have been an opportunity to fill lacunae and improve the museum’s functioning bringing it once again up to international standards that it has fallen far behind. In the absence of information about any such planning, one fears that this may be another instance of slapping on the label of “museum” to ward off reproach while simply packing and moving an inconveniently placed structure and tucking it out of sight.

And it will be out of sight: for what public will be freely allowed to access a museum that lies in the highest security zone at the head of the Vista, adjacent to the residences of the prime minister and vice president and the Parliament as well? Would it not be better to continue to use North and South Block as ministry offices, and to locate a new National Museum elsewhere – say at the vacant site of the former Safdarjang airport – as part of a precinct where several cultural institutions can be clustered, and where people could roam free?

Kavita Singh is Professor of Art History at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University where she teaches courses on the history and politics of museums.

May 18 is International Museum Day.