Monday, August 13, 2007

Cultural Blues

Sunday afternoons can be spent in many ways. A visit to the Chhatrapati Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as Prince of Wales museum) should not be one of them.

I have a dim memory of visiting the museum in class 2. Kids in uniform and ribboned up chotis walking along in single file. No idea what I saw but I remember the feeling "never again!"

Not much has changed. As an adult I can see there are some spectacular examples of Gandhara art. And a lot of other neaty displayed items of historical and cultural significance. But 15 minutes after entering I am exhausted and listless.

Is it the gloomy lighting, the lack of air conditioning or most importantly, the question,"How does this all matter?"

The classification of things has clearly been made from an academic's viewpoint. There's little or no attempt to excite the ordinary visitor.

You can hire an 'audio guide', of course. This guide comes free with the ticket for foreigners (who pay Rs 300). While Indians who get in on payment of Rs 15 must pay Rs 200 separately.

But that's besides the point.

All great museums are places which showcase the past, but make it come alive. Living monuments like an Aamer fort or Versailles palace of course, have it easier than museums which collect and display stuff from all. That's because you close your eyes and almost feel what it might have been like to be a king 400 years ago. Whereas a musuem only gives you the bits and pieces.

Then again when you enter va great museum there is a sense of grandeur. The British Museum , for example. On a 2 month internship in London I visited and fell in love with it. Of course I knew that many of the exhibits had been plundered and brought back to Britain. Which is why I felt no guilt about not making a voluntary donation which visitors are encouraged to make. (There is no official entry fee).

Another problem with the Prince of Wales museum: there is no Star Exhibit. That one thing everyone has heard of and has to see. The Louvre has the Mona Lisa, the Egyptian Museum 'Tutankhamen'. Yahan yeh bhi hai, woh bhi hai koi Shahrukh Khan nahin.

Agreed, all museums don't have the funding or a 'loot lo and add to your collection' advantage. But surely an effort can be made to connect with the aam junta. Nehru Science Centre for example, is no match to any really great science exhibit in the world. It could be far better maintained and much more innovative. But they are at least trying.

The Victorial Memorial in Kolkata is another fine example. Their exhibit on the 'History of Calcutta' is amazingly and interestingly put together. No wonder it attracts the maximum crowd. However, discount some of it. This is the only section which boasts of air conditioning :)

Lastly, museums are perhaps the shauk of advanced civilisations. Or the final resting place of dead ones. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo showcases a lost culture about which there is constant curiosity value. The things you see in Prince of Wales are not that strange or unknown. Sure, that Buddha statue or miniature painting may be 1000 years old but a similar (knock off version) might very well exist in your home.

Our culture is a living and breathing culture. Unfortunately the museum is suffocating.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Rightly put Rashmi. Most of the the existing Museums in the country were designed from academic point of view and not of Ordinary Visitors. And thats precisely why they are not crowd pullers.
    I had an interesting visit to a Museum which I documented here

  3. Typical of all thngs sarkari - mismanaged and boring! ...they should let art/history enthusiasts takeover the managemtn; someone in history/art for the love of the subject rather than the money (assuming dere's some!). boring guides can destroy your "museam experience". some reduce it to a statistics field visit as i experienced in egypt where the guide would bombard us with numbers all the way - number of pillars in some greek temple, the dates when work started and ended on a pyramid and so on; another difficult tour guide we encountered was at the egyptian museam in cairo - by the time we decoded his thick arab accent, he had already moved on to the next artefact! but the egyptian museam is awe-inspiring and very well maintained and structured keeping in mind unaccompanied visitors; its vastness kinda gets to you though - where to start is the tough question (though they have a recomended order)! the most thrilling part is looking at 5000 year old pharoahs and queens whose bodies are preserved well enough to see what they looked like and even their facial expressions; there's an eerie silence in the mummy chamber as most are overcome with awe; another good museam (on a vastly smaller scale) i have visited is this really cool Miniature trains museam in Pune, (Karve nagar i guess) - has a good collection of minature trains; many excellent scale models and vintage replicas

  4. Last time, I visited the museum when they a Birla company had sponsored a whole interactive show on the life of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy. It was much better than the whole museum which is very dry.

    Luckily, I generally carry my college i-card, so i get a student discount, but was surprised to know that firnags have to shell out Rs 150 plus.

    After a very very long time, today, itself I went to 3 museums in dehradun - Himalayan Gemologocial Museum, Forest research Institute and the Timber Museum. we have data warehouse of information, the problem i think is that, we need right people to convert that into knowledge that people can use.

  5. Sorry, I meant Himalayan Gelogical Museum

  6. I went to the PoW museum almost 10 years ago with an Italian friend. I think then Indians had to pay 5 rupees while foreigners 200. I was appalled.

    The museum was coming apart then- nothing of historical significance enough to appeal to the layman- just a motley collection of rocks. We got out of there real quick.

    Moksh, did you like the FRI? I went to school in d.dun; the old FRI campus (I think they moved to the present location in 1929) was too small for their use (60 acres compared to the over 1000 they now have)- so it was leased to my alma mater. We are all very grateful.

    The Red Pencil

  7. Thanks for the heads up Rashmi. I was feeling bad when I missed the 6:00 PM deadline this Sunday. Next weekend I'll probably spend my time at the NGMA. Unless, of course, you can come up with an insightful review of that as well.

    But I was shocked to see foreigners being fleeced for no rhyme or reason. If the ticket is Rs 15 then it is Rs 15. Why charge foreigners more? I've heard Taj Mahal is even worse.

  8. Funny - I also remember this museum from my school days. Isn't this the one near Regal?

    Btw, Rashmi, are you from St. Joseph's, Colaba? I dont know how I made that connection. I think you were 1 year ahead of me.

  9. I hope by advanced civilizations you meant the developed world.

    Have you visited Salarjung Museum..I went there as a kid and liked the place so much that i went there again during my summers. same with a museum in chennai.

    Yes, we do not have a Theme museum where a story is woven around and things flow from one to the other...but still you can marvel at the stuff collected together.

  10. hey Rashmi,

    I'm a regular reader of ur blog. But I have been never able to comment cuz u allow only bloggers to do it.Would you mind If I add ur blog to my fav list?

  11. There is another aspect, which I feel you've failed to cover in your article....

    Museums are meant to display artefacts and relics of the past; in our case those have been plundered and looted by the Ottomans, the Persians and the British, just to name a few. I had the opportunity to visit the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where the king's "treasury", looked like the booty den of a very able theif. Most of India's prized possessions are displayed with unapologetic audacity, in the museums of its plunderers.

    Have we done enough to reclaim these back? The answer is no.

  12. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Hi friends, thanks Rashmi for put this here. When I visited to India it happens to me also, later I found that foreigners get charged 10 times than locals in every matter(from Taxi to Museum).
    Silica Gel Desiccant

  13. Hey Rashmi,
    I came across your blog on Shakya's and I liked reading it. I am thoroughly amused that the government has renmaed just about every important landmark in Mumbai as Chhatrapati Shivaji - whatever happened to Veer Savarkar, Ahilyabai Holkar, fine, Tilak bhi chalega! Can unimaginative ministers doing nothing better scratching their balls at least hire aides to think of better names..sigh!

  14. There is a element of fact in your observation but I think it is also masked with some prejudice.

    If you talk about facts, how about making them concrete. How many people visit paying the Rs 15 or even the Rs 300 fee for the museum. What is the budget set apart for these museums. Looks like more than the content of the museum lack of air conditioning brought your spirits down. How many world class museums across the globe are free or run at meagre entry charge of Rs. 15 (37 cents).

    As a first guess more than 50% of the Indian population, which is quite conservative by the way, would readily spend Rs. 100 eating outside on a filthy "thela" but cringe to pay xtra anything to go visit a museum.

    You may be right in everything that you wrote but, think about it, you also represent a popular magazine. You have a decent following on your blog. You might want to be fair and look at both sides of the fence.

    PS: I am not into politics or support government policies.

  15. Hi, please add your blog to our new directory of Indian Blogs, thanks!

  16. it's 20 rs for indians and 750 rs for foreigners at Taj mahal. That's racial discrimination!
    let's put up our hands and start a campaign to do away with such policies. i don't know how it is in the rest of the world but this is plain and simple wrong!
    rashmi, why don't you start a blog signature campaign? you can surely do something.

  17. Hi Rashmi,
    Your blog is interesting

  18. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I have the privilege of visiting this museum, it is vast and the exihibits are rare to find in other museums. I liked the museum very much. I was on Mumbai Darshan tourist Bus organised by some local Travel Agency, the tour operator has given us 45 to 1 hour time for this spot.

    I was litrally running from one hall to another to get the glimpse of all the artifacts and exhibits as it was our last day in Mumbai. I think I had covered almost every hall in this museum it was quite an experience.

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