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Heritage Transport Museum: a museum with a difference

Heritage Transport Museum is rewriting the rules for Indian museums, by bringing together art, design and history

The ‘truck art’ installation by Daljeet Singh. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The ‘truck art’ installation by Daljeet Singh. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Of all the things that can be said about the Heritage Transport Museum, “boring" isn’t one. It’s the kind of museum that reshapes your interests, inviting you to admire things you might easily overlook—like a four-stroke diesel engine or a gear box. Before I went, my interest in the history of Indian transport was only narrowly surpassed by my interest in, say, the digestive system of millipedes. But by the end, Indian transport, and its history, had turned into a subject not only worthy of serious attention but also admiration.

The Heritage Transport Museum (HTM) sets a stratospheric benchmark for other Indian museums in terms of exhibition design—and not just the quality of its collection. It tells the story of the evolution of Indian transport by creating atmospheres, complementing the vehicles with historical art (drawings, lithographs, prints depicting transport), video, sound, reimagined streetscape, and specially commissioned contemporary art. It “breaks the monotony" of a museum collection, says the curator, Ragini Bhat. Instead of following a chronological path, the museum creates visually stunning spectacles. The galleries on different floors are all built around the central atrium, so while exploring one, you can see the contents of the others. This design lends an effect of constant contextualization, understanding where we’ve been and where we are going.

Hetal Shukla’s installation of a suspended 1962 Chevrolet covered in dome mirrors. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The museum in Taoru, Haryana, a 2- hour journey from Delhi, is the brainchild of Tarun Thakral, the chief operating officer of Le Meridien hotel in Delhi. When not making business decisions, he is collecting—mainly vehicles, but also items like oil lamps, sewing machines, old cameras, typewriters, enamel advertising signs, and miscellaneous ephemera. The museum, which grew out of his personal collection, opened in December 2013. Spread over almost 100,000 sq. ft, it is India’s largest private museum. In December, it entered the Limca Book Of Records as the “first-of-its-kind" transport museum in India.

“It’s the first comprehensive museum," says Thakral on the phone. In contrast to Delhi’s rail museum or the vintage car museum in Ahmedabad, it isn’t dedicated to a single mode of transport. It covers the entire gamut, from the pre-mechanized world of palanquins, carts and carriages, to trams, buses, vans, two-wheelers, rural jugaad transport, and maritime and aviation vehicles.

In a country with a non-existent museum-going culture, the HTM is using all the ammunition of art and design at its command. It’s a museum with a sense of humour. The ticket counter is a dissected car serving as a table; bike handles have been repurposed as door handles; chairs are made of bicycle steel rims, their seats are rubber tyres; the toilets have, for a looking glass, an assemblage of wing mirrors from trucks; instead of a stern “Do Not Touch" next to a vehicle, a cautionary sign reads, “No matter how tempted you are, resist! If everyone touches nothing will be left for you to admire."

A chair made of bicycle steel rims and a rubber tyre. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Since its inception, the museum has relied mainly on word-of-mouth popularity. Apart from those making a special trip from the Capital, tourists going from Delhi to Jaipur often drop in (it’s just off the highway). In addition, the museum works with many schools. It has developed hands-on learning programmes for students that enable interactive learning across topics: history, science, engineering, design and culture.

“Today’s generation isn’t interested in boring stuff," says Thakral. Special attention was, therefore, paid not just to the quality of exhibits but how they should engage with the public—a lesson that many Indian museums forget. Vikas Harish, the museum’s chief curator, stresses that the team was unanimous in thinking that art related to transportation had to be an integral part of the narrative. “We commissioned or acquired works of art that became an integral part of the gallery display," he writes on email from Paris. The biggest challenge, he says, was to create an Indian museum that would be on a par with any around the world.

Apart from contemporary art, there are works of folk art by Warli artist Vijay Sadashiv Mashe and others painting in the Gond idiom: all inspired by modern transport. Commissioning new art is an ongoing project.

A Ganesha sculpture made of automotive spare parts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

On the ground floor, even before you enter the galleries, sits a Ganesha sculpture made completely out of automotive spare parts. Donated to the museum by the Ford Foundation, it was made by artists Nishant Sudhakaran and Madhvi Khaitan Pittie. It consists of over 800kg of handpicked materials like brakes, fenders, clutch plates, chains, gears, connecting rods, etc. The eye-catching centrepiece, though, is a suspended car installation, hanging in the atrium, by artist Hetal Shukla, who has covered every inch of a 1962 Chevrolet with dome mirrors.

In the heavy-vehicles section, designed like a mini bus depot, an installation by artist Daljeet Singh pays homage to the iconic “truck art" found across the subcontinent, especially Pakistan. In another work, a metal shutter is painted by the artist Hanif Kureshi (co-founder of the popular street art project St+art India), featuring the slogans one often sees on trucks. They range in vein from the familial (Hum Do Hamare Do) and the patriotic (Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan) to the declamatory (Road King).

In a country with a non-existent museum-going culture, the Heritage Transport Museum is using all the ammunition of art and design at its command. It’s a museum with a sense of humour-

“India doesn’t have an industrial heritage preservation policy, so we got a lot of stuff from auctions and private channels," Thakral says. Last month, they acquired a railbus from Eastern Railway circa 1955. The quaint vehicle, powered by diesel, ran on narrow-gauge train tracks. Now discontinued across India, this is the only place in the country where it can be viewed by the public, claims Bhat.

The HTM could have been all about vehicular flamboyance—but it’s so much more. Rather than turning into a warehouse for old and new vehicles, it records the tale of a people’s innovation and ambitions—using art and thoughtful design that can make you smile. By presenting the vehicles alongside the many expressions of art they’ve inspired, the museum tells the story not only of transport, but also the people who come to use it.

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