Mummies, Zombies, and Spirits: A review of 3 Indian museums

For those of you who don’t know, I’m kind of a museums girl. I always liked museums and I’ve begun to steer my Anthropology degree in the direction of Museum Studies. While I was travelling in North India, I visited a few museums in Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Bhopal and with my museums mindset, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about each of them. So, if you’re not into museums, you might want to skip this post, but I’m going to write it anyway, because I think it’s interesting.

First of all, of the museums I have visited in India, most have had really poor information panels. This definitely has to with the state of heritage tourism that I talked about in my previous post. There might be one panel in a gallery, which could just be a framed piece of paper, giving an overview of the collection in the room. But as I have seen, there is generally no linking narrative between galleries and across the museum, making for a less than engaging experience for the visitor. And while objects do tend to be grouped thematically, they tend to be incompletely labelled (according to Western standards), lacking information about why the particular artifacts are important and often without attributing pieces to any particular artist, collector, or location. Furthermore, and also continuous with the themes of heritage tourism, many collections are not well preserved or conserved. They are stored without sensitivity to climate-control or light protection. Some museums have uncovered windows letting UV sunlight strike the objects, and many galleries are unprotected from the Indian heat and humidity and smell of must and mold.

The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad was the most like this prototype. I was told by several people that this museum is a MUST SEE while visiting the city. It’s an estate museum, so everything in their collection was owned by the Salar Jung family and bequeathed for exhibition. It’s actually a HUGE collection, which is displayed in around forty galleries across two floors and ranges in content from walking sticks, clocks, and coins, to porcelain, jade, and paintings. This museum has distinct galleries for Indian and Western artworks, which I was interested to see ,as a museums anthropologist who observes that non-Western cultures are often misrepresented in museum exhibits in the U.S. That is, the “African-Asian-Pacific” (and also “Indigenous American”) collections in the U.S. are often displayed in such a way – using dark lighting, fake dioramas, or particular language on labels – that exoticizes and otherizes these collections, diminishing the agency and humanity of the people from the cultures they represent. While in India, I have been curious to see how these museums of the non-Western world display objects from the West in comparison to how they display local objects. (Why does this sound like a thesis for graduate research?)

What I have seen so far, in part at the Salar Jung, is that, first of all, most of the objects from the West that are worth displaying are still in the West. The Salar Jung’s “Western Porcelain” collection, is hilariously composed of these strange looking figurines seemingly depicting people from the colonial era, judging by their sculpted clothing, but which are oddly polk-a-dotted. Others figures look like actual zombies with dark eyes and torn clothes. There is no explanation offered for these. Other Western collections include reproductions, including one of the Mona Lisa, conspicuously hung amongst other Western Arts with no further explanation other than “Mona Lisa, reproduction.”

And while these may seem a little pathetic and offensive, in the “really? that’s your example of Western art?” sense of things, I would almost rather see this and know that both the East and the West are bad at representing the other’s culture than see Western objects shown with more reverence than local Eastern objects. And, honestly, I didn’t see too much of this latter situation, even at the Salar Jung, where their prized object is an Italian marble statue titled “The Veiled Rebecca.” It stands at the center of the Western Marble gallery, which features reproductions of other Italian and Greek sculptures. But the gallery lacks much explanatory information, and the lighting is sort of mystically dim, with spotlights on the art. So I suppose the issue of (mis)representation is mostly fair… though arguably more problematic when the West (previously colonizing nations) misrepresents the East (previously colonized nations).

Anyway. That was a rant and a half. A final “fun fact” about the Salar Jung Museum: the information panels were often presented in four languages! Hindi, Urdu, Telegu, and English. Hooray for linguistic diversity!

In Jaipur, we visited the Albert Hall Museum, which was actually a fascinating place. What I found most interesting is that the building was built in 1876 for the visit of the Prince of Wales (the same visit which prompted the painting of city pink, thereby qualifying its nickname as the Pink City) with the original purpose of serving as an exhibition space of local culture and industry. As far as I’m aware, constructing buildings solely for museum purposes was not that common at that time. Museums had yet to be established as very permanent places, and exhibitions were created in temporary spaces or in already existing spaces that ordinarily served other purposes. To my knowledge, it was rare to build a new space for a permanent museum, and so the Albert Hall building itself was like a museum artifact in and of itself. There are paintings that were done directly on the wall when the museum was first built, some showing scenes from Indian literature and mythology, others shown as “examples” of Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese art. Most of halls are in the old Victorian style of display – large glass display cases – and mostly devoted to Indian artifacts. The exception is an International Arts gallery that is essentially half “Western” – focusing on Greek and Roman reproductions – and half Egyptian – boasting authentic and research-worthy Egyptian artifacts collected by an archaeologist, including a real mummy in a sarcophagus accompanied by X-rays.

I was really impressed by the pottery collection at the Albert Hall, which showed different styles of pottery from around India. The panels accompanying this gallery were actually quite detailed and informative, though they were still just large blocks of text printed on plain paper. The museum also included sizable collections of coins, weaponry, Indian miniature paintings, musical instruments, traditional tribal masks, and ceramic figures in yoga poses.

The best museum I’ve seen so far in India, however, is the Tribal Museum in Bhopal. And this isn’t just the best museum I’ve seen in India, but I would also say it’s probably the best museum dedicated to indigenous people and culture that I’ve seen anywhere, and it’s also among the most well-designed museums that I have ever visited. Its galleries are dedicated to the life and culture of indigenous Indian tribes, particularly in the state of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital. What is so fantastic about this museum is that all of the exhibits are designed and almost entirely hand-crafted by the indigenous people themselves. Like with the problem of representing foreign cultures, we often see indigenous populations misrepresented in museum galleries, which tend to paint them as people of the past, frozen in time, without recognizing the fact that their culture, like our own, changes and adapts to the changing of time. Involving these people in the design of their own exhibits is a phenomenal (and also pretty self-evident) way of countering that issue.

Honestly, I loved everything about this museum. It’s relatively small, consisting of only five or six galleries, devoted to traditional homes, “tribal aesthetics,” spiritualism, “culture,” and children’s play. The museum ceilings are high, over two stories, as a few of the galleries have displays which you can climb up on a platform or balcony to experience. Most of the galleries are pretty dark with different colored lights and spotlights illuminating the exhibits, and each space has skylights in the ceiling, letting in natural light which is swirled ethereally by fans within the orifice. The galleries are connected by short passageways that introduce the topic of the next exhibit with information panels in Hindi and English.

Other than the fact that the exhibits are completely self-designed, there are three other specific aspects of the museum that I really liked. The first is highly related. Often, indigenous museums take objects out their original context and show things as art that were never intended as art, or reduce careful craftsmanship to “industy” and “tools.” There becomes a false dichotomy between “art” and “tools,” “aesthetics” and “practicality.” But here at the Tribal Museum, that isn’t the case at all. Aesthetics are still highlighted, but an entire environment is built for the objects to be seen within, and the practical uses of the wedding band, the marriage pagoda, the pottery, the architecture of the homes, etc. are still made evident. It’s a really beautiful set up that shows indigenous life and culture as the people themselves want it to be seen.

Secondly, I really enjoyed the immersion of the exhibits. There are so many details to look at, and displays to explore. The gallery on traditional homes is like a village of play houses, and the two-story marriage pagoda is like a tree house or pirate ship pending with adventure. Most of all, however, the creativity of the displays was incredibly impressive. They made use not only of the floor space, but also wall space and ceiling space, with objects in every direction. In the gallery on children’s play, for example, wooden figures of children were arranged in a circle to show a game similar to Duck Duck Goose. But instead of sitting on the floor, they were arranged on the wall! Above them from the ceiling hung mobiles made of clay beads.

Bhopal isn’t on the list of Indian destinations for most tourists, but honestly this museum alone, in my humble opinion, makes it worth visiting – not to mention the beautiful lakes, mosques, and nearby heritage sites. And, if you’re into museums, Albert Hall and Salar Jung are interesting places to add to your Jaipur and Hyderabad bucket lists too.

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