Museums in the Colony

CISA member Saloni Mathur, Assistant Professor in Art History at UCLA, has recently received a $248,700 grant from the prestigious J. Paul Getty Trust for a collaborative project on 'Museology and the Colony: The Case of India.'

Dr. Mathur will be co-directing the project with Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Other members include Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India; Jyotindra Jain, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India; Kajri Jain, Independent Scholar, Mountain View, California; Partha Mitter, University of Sussex, Brighton, England; and Savia Viegas, University of Mumbai, India.

In a first step, the project ‘s co-organisers Kavita Singh (JNU) and Saloni Mathur (UCLA) will be convening a three-day colloquium to be held at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, December 14, 2005, and Neemrana Fort Palace, Rajasthan, December 15 and 16, 2005.

The project's organisers note that the extraordinary place of the museum in contemporary Indian society has been little understood by scholars. There has yet to be an integrated study of the vast range of museum practices in India, their vibrancy and unconventionality, their tenacity in the face of a lack of resources, their relationships of meaning to diverse constituencies, and their complex histories of participation in colonialist, nationalist and post-nationalist projects. Indeed, to begin to discuss the topic of museums in India today is to immediately recognize the limitations of the classic European paradigm as a model for understanding the Indian subcontinent. The unique trajectories of modernity in India have generated a multitude of practices of collecting, display and of museum viewing that participate and co-exist within today's public sphere. Although these practices routinely transgress the boundaries between the secular and the sacred, they remain "museological" in their intentions and effects. By investigating specific museum sites within the Indian subcontinent, and the ways in which they function for their viewing audiences, they are undertaking a broad collaborative project over the next two years which will contribute a new framework for understanding the distinctiveness of museums in the South Asian subcontinent, one that seeks to challenge the stability of the prevailing western paradigm which is not sufficient, in their opinion, for grasping the complexities of museum culture in the Indian case.

The wide range of museum practices existing in South Asia today derive from a variety of historical impulses, from the national, to the sub-national, the princely collections, the village level memorials, and the so-called vernacular practices. So, for example, there are museums -- like the Indian Museum in Calcutta, established in 1814 -- that preserve the colonial fantasy of a comprehensive archive of the colony's natural and human resources. But there are also cases like the Baroda Museum -- established in a princely state by the Gaekwad ruler of Baroda, whose competitive relationship with the representatives of the Crown generated one of the most ambitious art collections in India, containing Titians and Rubenses that most curators would envy. Other museums, like the National Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art, both in Delhi, were established shortly after independence to stake India's claim to a place among the world's civilized and modernizing nations. State museums, established in the 1950's following the reorganization of Indian provinces after Independence, try to consolidate regional histories and heritages; but the collections of the princely states, most of which opened to the public in the 1970's, evoke regional identities of a different sort. Also striking are complexes like the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, and Dakshin Chitra in Madras: each of these unites the museum with the craft sensibilities of the Indian village, and in the process they re-define each for an urban, largely middle-class clientele.

How should one begin to conceive of these diverse phenomena, born as they were from a set of historical conditions fundamentally different from those in the west? Unfortunately, in the non-western world, there is a long history of viewing the museum as a "failed" version of its counterpart in Europe. Instead of judging the efficacy of Indian museums by the standards of the Victorian pedagogy that brought them into existence, the goal should be to study them within their own specific social and cultural contexts. Thus, one may ask: If the museum is a European invention, then what has been its historical career outside the physical geography of Europe? How are museums distinctively embedded in different social, cultural, and historical conditions? What purpose does the museum serve for subaltern and/or peasant classes, a constituency – in the Indian case -- who come from the villages to fill many urban museums today? What kinds of understandings (about art, culture, themselves and others) do they leave the museum with? And finally, what does the experience of India reveal about the global condition of museums today?

The project aims to map out India's art museums and to develop themes for their study. With the help of a team of ten researchers, it is hoped to conduct detailed studies of about thirty institutions all over the country. These studies will gather information on institutional histories as well as their reception by their publics. At this point, the team of researchers has been assembled but is yet to go into the field. It is the hope of the December 2005 Colloquium that by inviting both South Asianists and non-area specialists into conversation with the Indian case, this meeting will play an important role in the broader collaboration.

The primary aims of the colloquium are thus three-fold: to examine the history, theory, and empirical realities of museums in the non-western world, to address the intellectual challenges of our research in India within a comparative frame, and to theorize a new framework that begins to confront the issues of museums in postcolonial society.

Saloni Mathur received her PhD. in Cultural Anthropology from the New School for Social Research in 1998, and taught at the University of Michigan before joining UCLA. Working at the intersection of art history, anthropology, and museum studies, her work is concerned with the legacy of colonial history in India and its implications for contemporary contexts of cultural display. She has written on the history of colonial postcards, living ethnological exhibits in nineteenth century London, and the orientalism of the Victorian department store, among other things. She is also the incoming director of the Museum Studies program at UCLA, following the retirement of its previous director and founder, Donald Preziosi, last year. She has published in such interdisciplinary sites as Art History, The Art Journal, Cultural Anthropology, American Anthropologist, Third Text, Parachute, and The Women's Review of Books, and has recently completed a book titled India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display, for publication with the University of California Press.

Published: Tuesday, September 06, 2005