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How city archaeological museums act as islands of culture

While newer museums gaze on the present as well as the future, archaeological museums in older Indian cities secure the past

Visitors at the Indian Museum in Kolkata.
Visitors at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. (Getty Images)

Whenever I think of travelling to a city, one of the first things I put on my to-do list is visiting a museum, or maybe two, or three. You see, rather than the concert venues or the hip cafés, the shopping malls or book stores, what draws me to a city is how it chooses to institutionally remember history, both the local and the national. For me, a city’s cultural pretensions are only as good as its museums. And since I have certain, very particular, interests, a more prime category among museums are the ones on archaeology and antiquity.

One of the accepted myths of modern urbanisation is constant forward motion. To this headlong hurtle, we give loaded euphemistic names: “progress”, “development”. As cities become more cosmopolitan and more broadly representative of the people who live there, they have the mandate and duty to create fresh cultural institutions that gaze at the present and the future. However, I am invariably drawn to the older cities and towns that have done, or are still doing, the heavy lifting of memorialising the past.

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Museums in such cities do so by preserving historical art. These may be housed in buildings as diverse as the new and hyper-modern Bihar Museum of Patna, the grand colonial pile of the Indian Museum in Kolkata, or the National Museum in Delhi, which, stylistically, sits somewhere in the middle. What they have in common, though, are stupendous antiquity collections that can take the breath away, especially when you consider that the artworks on display constitute a small percentage of the museums’ permanent collections.

Apart from the Bihar Museum, which follows a more modern layout and display plan that foregrounds narrative storytelling and contextual cultural information, most archaeological museums in the country hew more towards a literal meaning of their Sanskrit synonym: sangrahalaya.

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A holdover from the old colonial idea of the museum as an out-of-context store of artefacts, these museums often suffer from age-old problems. One of the biggest is information on the provenance of art objects, or the lack thereof. Objects from Bihar, for example, are mostly often just labelled Bihar, or eastern Bihar, or southern Bihar. And these labels, devoid of local markers, have remained unchanged for decades. 

What this does is rob the objects of their stories, of the fact that statues produced in a 10th century atelier in Bodh Gaya have their own character, very different from an atelier in Lakhisarai. Not only does this invisibilise further the already unknown artists who created them, it also urges the viewing public, for whom the display ostensibly exists, to remain ignorant and unaware.

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An exhibit at the Bihar Museum in Patna.
An exhibit at the Bihar Museum in Patna. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

But despite these shortcomings, if someone is interested enough, the wealth of material on offer is stunning. In the newly opened wing for Buddhist art in the National Museum, a crowned Buddha from the ruins of the Vikramashila monastery in Antichak, Bihar, assumes pride of place in one of the galleries. It dates from the 10th century and, under the spotlight, the Buddha’s limestone form positively glows. To look at this resplendent statue is to be reminded of the importance that Indian religious art places on the act of gazing at an icon (darshana) and the multiple meanings, both exoteric and esoteric, that it embodies. It’s hard not to be moved by its artistry, accompanied by relief that it resides in a museum in India and has not been smuggled away.

To go even deeper into history, take the famous so-called “Pashupati” seal from Mohenjo Daro. It’s only when you see it displayed in the National Museum that you realise that it is tiny, measuring a mere 3.4x3.4x1.4cm. It is a wonder that the seal even exists, with its enigmatic image. We are lucky to be able to see it whenever we want to.

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The 'Pashupati' seal from Mohenjo Daro at the National Museum.
The 'Pashupati' seal from Mohenjo Daro at the National Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Some of the best examples of Indo-Greek art from the 2,000-year-old Gandharan empire of the Kushanas resides in Kolkata, not to mention the stunning sculpted railings and gateways of the Bharhut Stupa from the second century BCE. But these are “national” collections which give no real sense of Bengal’s own archaeological past. For that, you would have to go to the State Archaeological Museum in south Kolkata’s Behala neighbourhood. Housed in a gorgeous old zamindari mansion, it has a treasure trove of objects unearthed (and continuing to be excavated) in Bengal, from ancient terracotta plaques to Buddhist statues and Gupta-era coins.

Or head to the Asutosh Museum on north Kolkata’s College Street, situated in the University of Calcutta campus, for stunning Pala-era stone stelae from West Bengal and modern Bangladesh. A visit to these museums truly broadens and deepens one’s understanding of local history. In neither place, however, will you be allowed to take photographs, and the labelling will convey nothing unless you already have some idea of what to expect.

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This isn’t a story that’s unique to Kolkata either. Travel to Agartala’s Tripura Government Museum, which was shifted to the Ujjayanta Palace in 2013, and you will be met with the same combination of wonderful antiquities and woeful information. The state’s archaeological sites, from Pilak in the south to Unakoti in the north, tell a fascinating story of a land that acted as a cultural bridge between South and South-East Asia for thousands of years. Yet, you will get no such sense from the exhibits, completely devoid as they are of storytelling.

But to come back to the initial point of the essay: Despite such shortcomings, it’s a blessing that such public institutions exist across the length and breadth of the country, sprinkling cultural fairy dust in chaotically growing cities and towns as different as Bhagalpur and Mathura. The museums make such cities truly compelling and they are open to anyone, sometimes for as little as 5 for a ticket.

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