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Museums Today!

Updated: May 19, 2022

In the evolution of humankind the discovery of things around us and a curiosity of the workings of objects have held fascination across time, region and communities. Art and creativity triggers and inner harmony that pulls our whole being. Humans started exploring and experimenting with the available material in nature to create various artworks. This feeds and fuels a range of emotions that renders in colour, form and texture to behold and cherish. This was the inception of the art. The need and feeling of showing and showcasing of art gave birth to the forms of displays using various mediums whether on the walls of various caves, palaces, temples or on the walls of the special buildings or structures which are dedicated for this purpose only. Art truly flourished when it started getting patronage through the royal families, specially made artworks were specially preserved and displayed on the walls of the royal palaces initiated the concept of ‘Art gallery’.


The concept of Museum did not suddenly come into function. Historically there are many references to collections, displays and organizations like libraries or other learning institutions that have existed across geographies. A comprehensive history of museums begins with the origin of the collection of the prehistory and traces of museums from grave goods to treasure troves, from Alexandrian temple of the Muses to the Renaissance cabinets of curiosities and the diverse institutes' array of modern institutions worldwide.


In terms of antiquity, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum dating to 530 BCE and dedicated to the Mesopotamian Empire is perhaps the oldest known collection and display. The Curator was Ennigaldi, daughter of Nabonidus, the last King of the Neo-Babylon empire. It was in the historic location of Ur in modern day Iraq. Archaeologists in their excavations found dozens of artefacts arranged neatly in rows with clay cylinders with descriptive texts in three scripts.


Museum as an institution came into formal existence in Europe and flourished during the Renaissance period. Exploration of the European model and its international adaptations is an important aspect of the study of museology. ‘Museum’ as a word may have been new for modern or pre-modern Indians but the concept was present. The idea of museum existed in ancient India in pre-historic cave paintings, alekhyagrihas (Ranga Mahal - Hall of paintings), chitrasalas (Paintings Gallery), devakulas, visvakarma mandirs and monasteries, that served the purpose of education and healthy entertainment. We have references of ‘Chitrashala’ which were the centres of the exhibitions where many art exhibits were exhibited in the palaces for the enjoyment and to prevent and preserve the art objects.


‘Chitrasalas’(चित्रशाला) refers to “art galleries” which existed in ancient Laṅkā, the city of King Rāvaṇa, according to the Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa verse 5.6.36-37. —


विविधाकाराः स कपिर्मारुतात्मजः।

लतागृहाणि चित्राणि चित्रशालागृहाणि च।।5.6.36।।

क्रीडागृहाणि चान्यानि दारुपर्वतकानपि।

कामस्य गृहकं रम्यं दिवागृहकमेव च।।5.6.37।।

Translation - The son of the Windgod (Hanuman) saw at the palace of Ravana, the lord of demons, colourful palanquins of several kinds, bowers, picture galleries, and spots for sporting, hillocks (artificial) made of wood, apartments for romance, for pleasures and day time activities.


Beyond the references in these epics, Kālidāsa’s Śakuntalā and Daṇḍin’s Daśakumāracarita make many references to art galleries or chitrasalas. In the medieval period there was a concept of a room in which the specimens were kept in the private collectors which were known as chambers or cabinets.


In the colonial period the wave of museum movement reached the sub-continent. Amidst the tragic stories of plunder and pillage of antiques to European locations, there was a move to establish museums in India. The need was for preservation of objects as evidence of a rich culture, heritage and glorious past. It led to the dissemination of science of conservation and preservation amidst development of the museum movement in India. Ihe pre-independence era museums had a twin function of collection and research. Another important function, of display of objects was added later. Modern museums have multi-fold activities of collection, conservation, research, display and education. Museums were established for various purposes but mainly for trade and business purposes.


The establishment of the Asiatic Society (1784) and the Indian Museum (1814) were landmarks in the history of the growth and development of museums in India. Later many museums were opened in different parts of the country. National Museum of India was established at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi and opened for the public after its formal opening on 15th August 1949. CSMVS Museum, formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum was established to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1906 which finally opened its doors to the visitors on 10th January 1922.


We at Johnson Odakkal Initiatives have a special link with heritage and its narrative. Our founder and CEO, Commodore (Dr) Johnson Odakkal was mentored by the Grand Sire and Maritime Icon, Late Vice Admiral MP Awati to conserve and archive the rich collection at Maritime History Society. That is a work that is in a critical state of attention. Collaborative efforts with many individuals and institutions are the need across museums.


At the celebrations to mark 150 years of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, Mumbai, Shri Aaditya Thackerey, Maharashtra Minister of Tourism, Environment and protocol stressed on the need of private-public partnerships in the progress of heritage, culture and museums. He lauded the collaborative efforts of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum with Brihanmumbai Muncipal Corporation and Bajaj Foundation in an International Award winning conservation effort. The even saw the release of a special edited work – “Mumbai : A City Through Objects.” It is an amazing labour of love by the Managing Trustee and Honorary Director, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and her team.


Nowadays when the aims and objectives of education have been diversified, the museums have become an inevitable source for successful visual education. Image and popularity of a museum depends upon its public friendly approaches, entertainment, amusement facility in addition to its contribution towards research and education. Museums are ready to take challenges and think out of the box. Museum approaches have changed, they not only try to attract audiences but also they step out and try to bring exhibits to the doorsteps of the visitors by running projects of mobile exhibitions. Schools in their return to in-person activities would benefit from making museum visits a vital part of the learning experience of the emerging generation of Nation Builders. Our history and its objects need to inspire our collective minds with creative insight for a vibrant and resurgent India.


On the occasion of this International Museum Day, let's think about it in a different way. Why do we need particular artifacts acquired through different resources? Why do we have to go anywhere? Just look around… You will get to see the objects which are very close to your heart. You can establish your own museum at your home with simple creative ideas, and methods. Why do we need huge space and fancy display techniques? We can make our own museum using ‘What we have’ and ‘What we like’.


Sounds interesting? How? Want to know more? Connect with us. Stay connected with us at www.johnsonodakkal.com for a workshop on basics of collections and your role in this endeavour starting from your home!


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