Central Vista Diaries Part 5: Moving National Museum to North and South Blocks will do wonders for its visibility

By the end of 2021, tourists who arrive in Cairo will be spoilt for choice when it comes to experiencing the history of that antique land, for no less than three museums will vie for attention. Is that much? After all, if New Delhi’s lone National Museum is enough for those with a penchant for Indian history, what’s wrong with just the peachy-pink Egyptian Museum near the famous Tahrir Square for that nation’s long legacy?

That the Egyptian Museum’s 13,500 sqm was simply not enough to do justice to its prodigious history was settled decades ago. But finally this April, its 22 royal mummies journeyed to the newly built National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat in a grand procession. And its stunning Tutankhamun collection also shifted after a century to a new home near the pyramids: the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza.

Clearly, the Egyptians were all too aware that a single museum was only sufficient for its antiquities a century ago. But the rapidly increasing artefacts and rising tourist interest in history underlined the need for more—and better equipped—museums. Egypt took decades to get that idea off the ground but surely there is no reason for India—with fast-burgeoning collections of antiquities if not footfalls just yet—to dither too?

Great museums in the West allocate a large part of their space to exhibits from other civilisations—thanks to ‘collections’ fattened by colonial exploits. But the need for nations like Egypt (and Cairo as the current capital of one of the most ancient civilisations in the world) to give as much play as possible to their own historical legacy is obvious. So just one building in New Delhi to display all of India’s long history is certainly far too modest.

As museum expert Vinod Daniel pointed out to me last week, another nation with an equally hoary history—China—has (predictably) been on a museum building spree, reportedly opening one every two days for the past five years. That overkill has left China with thousands of museum buildings in cities of all sizes but not enough artefacts or visitors, and therefore no viability. But having too few museums is not a good idea either.

India’s long history needs imposing, sprawling spaces. So it is important not to lose sight of the larger cause of a “Grand Museum of India” or a “National Museum of Indian Civilisation” amid the political slugfest over the Central Vista redevelopment project: the space in North and South Blocks will be three times more than that of the current Ganesh Deolalikar-designed building—up from 35,000 sq m to a respectable 1,67,000 sq m.

Why the existing museum premises cannot be expanded along the Rajpath axis is a valid question. But planting a museum in the midst of government office buildings was a bad idea to begin with—its lack of footfalls are proof of this. So why proceed further with this flawed concept? Of course, more new museums should always be a future option because even North and South Block cannot do justice to the sheer vastness of India’s history.

A shift ‘up’ to Raisina Hill will certainly do wonders for the visibility and viability of a grand National Museum. Though the new Chinese museums are struggling, Beijing’s Palace Museum (Forbidden City) draws 19 million visitors and generates revenues of over $225 million from ticket sales and merchandise; our National Museum, even by the most generous estimates, gets just about 7 lakh visitors annually, with matching revenues.

Imagine what a combined North & South Block space can do to increase awareness of an institute of importance like our one and only National Museum. The imminent demolition of the 1960s building has had its share of lachrymose protests, but several museum aficionados at least acknowledge that the current building is too cramped for all that a National Museum must do as displaying its collection of artefacts is only one of its tasks.

Just like no protestors about the Central Vista project wonder why their laments about Shastri Bhavan are NOT echoed by that building’s occupants, there is a similar nonchalance about the silence of National Museum’s denizens. Not that the museum’s exhibits are expected to suddenly come to life and clamour to remain where they are; but its living occupants are not exactly depressed at the idea of getting much more space to do their work.

A major—and legitimate—concern, however, is how the artefacts will be stored before they reach their new lodgings on the Hill. The archives and collections of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) have been already moved to the now defunct Janpath Hotel premises, till its new building comes up at Jamnagar House on the C Hexagon. But storing the priceless pieces of the huge National Museum collection is another ballgame.

Just last year a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in Parliament noted that renovations at the Indian Museum in Kolkata did not follow due process, leading to valuable artefacts being damaged in 2015. It said the work was awarded “on nomination basis and executed the work without any conservation plan or preparation of Detailed Project Report and proper planning.” A repeat of that in Delhi cannot be allowed.

It must also be remembered, however, that although the National Museum’s collection has been at its current site for 61 years, a full and publicly accessible inventory of its collection, complete with photographs has still not been done. The importance of that is obvious: without it, not only are scholars and researchers unable to access them for reference, but there is also no evidence to fall back on in case an artefact is lost, stolen or damaged.

 

The imminent move should be taken as an opportunity to speed up the cataloguing process so that the collections can be assessed and valued beforehand. Besides our own experts, an international component could give the auditing and assessing process even more credibility. But given that we have no idea what or how much has been in storage, we will never know what may have been purloined or damaged in these past decades either.

Amid the vocal protesters there are a few less raucous voices trying to draw attention to the other issues about the move. As one JNU professor told me, “I am not opposed to an upgrade of the National Museum. Why would I or any other museum lover be opposed? The fear is that the opposite of an upgrade, or nothing, will happen.” Museum aficionados will share her concern whether just a move will change its moribund way of working.

As she put it, “What ails the National Museum is not so much the nature of the building or funding (some of it lapses each year as it cannot spend all it gets) but that it is woefully understaffed, retired staff are not replaced, recruitment rules hobble its capacity to bring in professionals, and mediocre bosses want to hire even more mediocre juniors who won't show them up.” All museum lovers must be hoping that the move will end such drawbacks.

That a slothful and opaque system cannot deliver what a great museum needs is glaringly evident. For. the National Museum is the fulcrum of an entire museum eco-system, as Daniel points out. A truly state-of-the-art institution needs a wide range of trained staff including researchers, curators, collection managers, exhibition designers, conservators and technical experts. Hiring, training and retaining top-quality staff must be a priority.

The floors above and below the main grand rooms of North & South Blocks will be ideal for all of these aspects of museum management, plus storage. Daniel expects the move will be preceded by thorough planning and retrofitting and hopes that the re-imagined museum will be more interactive, responsive, engaging—and even entertaining. Just getting a location that matches the magnificence of India’s history is not enough.

It is too much to expect that the stars of the National Museum’s collections will also be taken one day in a grand procession down Rajpath to their new perch atop Raisina Hill just like the pharaohs’ sarcophagi were borne to their new abode in Egypt this April. But the powerful symbolism of opening up for the general public the edifices built to serve a colonial power and then house the very top echelons of government is inescapable.

READ CENTRAL VISTA DIARIES PART 1 HERE

READ CENTRAL VISTA DIARIES PART 2 HERE

READ CENTRAL VISTA DIARIES PART 3 HERE

READ CENTRAL VISTA DIARIES PART 4 HERE


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