Friday, Oct 07, 2022

The Museum of Everything

An upcoming exhibition, titled “India and the World”, in Mumbai and Delhi aims to redesign the conventions of museum space in India.

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Among the treasures in the collection of the British Museum, London, is a small pen and brown ink drawing by Rembrandt called Emperor Jahangir Receiving an Officer. The Dutch master was known to have had an “Indian phase” in his later years when he collected and was inspired by Mughal miniatures. This drawing was probably Rembrandt’s attempt to copy the composition and delicate style of the original painting. It is one of the many prestigious objects loaned by the British Museum for the exhibition “India and the World: A History in Nine Stories”, which will open at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in November this year. The exhibition will travel to the National Museum in Delhi in March 2018.

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Rembrandt’s reproduction of a Mughal miniature, into which the artist introduced elements of shading and perspective, encapsulates the spirit in which the landmark exhibition itself has been conceived — that of a global heritage shaped as much by the exchanges between different cultures, as by their differences. “This is the reason we decided to call the exhibition ‘India and the World’, instead of ‘India in the World,’” says art historian Naman Ahuja, who has curated the exhibition with JD Hill, curator of the British Museum. “The title allows us to be aware of the similarities as well as the differences that exist between us and different parts of the world.”

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The nine stories in the title refer to the eight sections of the exhibition that will look at eight broad phases of Indian history, and a final section that will examine the very notion of time and history. “India and the World” has been in the works for three-and-a-half years, and been planned in celebration of 70 years of Indian independence. “Colonised countries have not been able to create great collections like the former colonial powers or financial powers such as the US. Institutions, such as the British Museum, which have encyclopedic collections, have been able to do this. But, could we do the same in India?” says Ahuja. The exhibition was conceived as a dialogue between important objects and art works from specific periods in Indian history and iconic objects from the British Museum collection.

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“India and the World” is inspired by former Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor’s book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the related exhibition. “It is the first time in the 200-year-old history of the museum movement that an exhibition of this kind has been developed in India. We have collaborated with the National Museum and the British Museum, as well as with private collections from across India and institutions such as the Indian Museum in Kolkata, Victoria Memorial Hall, National Crafts Museum in Delhi, Government Museum in Chandigarh, Patna Museum and the Museum of Christian Art in Goa,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of CSMVS.

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The exhibition is also inspired by James Cuno’s book Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. Cuno, who in his capacity as the president and CEO of the J Paul Getty Trust, has supported the upcoming exhibition along with Tata Trusts, and is one of the foremost proponents of the encyclopedic museum as an institution for global cosmopolitanism, as opposed to narrow national interest and identity. The larger idea that has driven the exhibition is that the museum, as a space, is no longer just a repository of antiquities. “It is an institution of education, a centre of culture and civic space for social debate,” says Mukherjee. The exhibition, he adds, is an opportunity to recognise the importance of the universal or encyclopedic museum.

In its own way, “India and the World” wants to make it clear that encyclopedic museums should be re-envisioned as more than just relics of colonialism. “We all know that museums were created in the context of nation building during the colonial era, and since then the nations of the world have seen great changes in terms of border, composition and outlook, ” says Dr Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, “The question we have to ask is — what is the role, mission, responsibility of encyclopedic museums? These institutions have amassed great collections from all around the globe and they are today in a position to compare cultures, and find out how to define our common ground. Everything we have in museums are refugees from the past, that have reached our shores and have survived. They are witnesses that tell us about their culture and we have to know how to listen. This exhibition is a step towards that.”

First published on: 16-02-2017 at 12:32:03 am
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