Across the world in one museum
The British Museum director on how a centuries-old Indian cooking-pot found in Iran encapsulates our shared global heritage
The desk in British Museum director Hartwig Fischer’s office in London has a small figurine of Sai Baba. It was gifted by his Indian friends, says Fischer, as he sips green tea at the National Museum in Delhi on a hot Saturday afternoon. Fischer is visiting the Capital for the Delhi edition of India & The World: A History In Nine Stories (it opened on 5 May)—a mammoth, first-time collaboration between the British Museum, London, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, and National Museum, Delhi, that maps the history of India in a global context through rare, invaluable antiquities.
“My relationship with India goes back to my childhood," he says, drifting off momentarily, as he rummages through fond memories. “It was not a very intense relationship," he specifies, “but as a child I would be taken to museums by my parents, and I saw, in several places, sculptures and miniatures from India. So, very early on, I had books on miniature paintings and on Indian art. That nurtured a part of my childhood."
At the British Museum (where he has been the director since 2016), Fischer’s fascination with Indian history grew. He has often called the institution “a museum of the world, for the world". It is where some of the world’s most remarkable artefacts are housed: from the exquisite Cyrus Cylinder (539 BC) that narrates the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, to The Lampedusa Cross (2015) that marks the tumultuous forced migration of refugees across the Mediterranean.
But the museum also stores precious objects of Indian origin, made centuries ago, excavated in lands which were oceans away. It is what steers our conversation: how objects made in India travelled to foreign lands, and made our history one that is shared with other nations. Fischer draws my attention to a beautifully preserved cooking pot sculpted sometime in 600-900 AD. The humble, well-rounded ceramic pot travelled from India to the coastal town of Siraf in southern Iran. Trade overseas was important at the time, and some South Asian traders settled near Siraf, carrying with them family recipes, spices and utensils. “In essence, this very simple object tells the vast story of global trade and global connections," says Fischer.
It is this cross-pollination of cultures through people and objects—and the subsequent interconnectedness—that encapsulates the history of humankind. It is for this very reason, Fischer believes, that the global artefacts in museums should travel. Such pieces of history are not meant to just stay in one museum, one city, one country—they should tour other nations, so that people belonging to other regions and cultures have the opportunity to view them, experience them, celebrate them. That is the ethos of the British Museum, he says. “In fact, the British Museum lends more objects than any other museum in the world," Fischer underlines, his words measured. “That is its key mission. It tries to share as much as it can—objects, knowledge, the excitement—with the world."
But while the British Museum revels in being an institution that has a significant collection and has lent countless prized possessions to many nations (including India), one must remain cognizant of the fact that many of these objects were taken forcibly from colonized nations. This issue is a bone of contention today, with some countries wanting their artefacts returned. When I bring this up with Fischer, he seems unwilling to respond initially.
“The fact is that most of the nations do not make this demand," he says. But what about nations like Ethiopia? I ask.
“Yes, there are some countries like Ethiopia that want key objects," he says. “This is a very complex story, and colonialism did play a part, but colonialism is not the origin of the encyclopaedia museum. The first museums—the first idea of such museums—was to address global knowledge, and, for this, collection of world knowledge started well before colonialism. However, colonialism is obviously one part of that story.... So yes, we do have a certain concentration of objects, and this is precisely why the British Museum is driving this global cooperation if you like, to make as many people as possible participate in it.
“Now, when it comes to the claims that you mentioned, if you speak to many people in the world, I think, to the best of my knowledge, the prevailing feeling is that it’s good that some of their objects are seen in one place in the context of global cultures, which is at the British Museum. That the opportunity one has to explore (different) cultures by comparing them directly is something precious; it is an asset."
Museums are beacons of knowledge—they are key institutions that educate people about their roots and the history of the world. But in a country like India, where the museum-going culture is almost non-existent, what can one do to change that? “What makes museums live up to what we might rightly expect of them, is that they have stable structures. Whoever are the stakeholders, whether it is the state, the benefactors, trustees, perhaps even the audience, they all have to ensure that it must exist, it must thrive, and it must be put in a position of sustainable growth," says Fischer.
India And The World is a classic example of what Indian museums (in collaboration with international museums) can achieve if they put their mind to it. When it opened in Mumbai last year, over 200,000 people visited the exhibition. What one can learn through such shows, one will never be able to learn through textbooks. It is, therefore, imperative that we find new ways of building a dialogue around museums in India.
India And The World is on view at the National Museum, Delhi, till 30 June.