My biggest problem with our history museums is that they are stuck in an inflexible, indifferent and un-engaging past. We have some of the world’s most beautiful artifacts from over two millennia of history. But our museums rarely communicate captivating stories. They are built as an endless tableau of cultural pride for foreign tourists. But when will they become sites of conversation and civic engagement? When will they enter the contemporary arguments about identity and growth? Looking back, two primary impulses birthed history museums in India:
- Colonial excavators wanted to store and preserve archaeological artifacts in situ instead of shipping them to England.
- Museums wove together all the archaeological sites excavated in the early part of the 20th century and built the idea of India around them.
Between storing and nation-building, our history museums got boxed into a role that served India well for the first years after Independence. Museums were conceived as cultural unifiers in a diverse and newly free nation.
But we now need to urgently transition into the second phase of museums more relevant to our times. As we passionately debate the changing idea of India amid unprecedented economic and social change, museums must become a stage to enact the aspirations and challenges of a transitioning nation. We need to re-write the codes of how we portray pride as well as how we confront troubling stories.
When will we have an engaging story-telling museum on the growth of democracy, cricket history, Indian movies, the IT story, even the evolution of the sari? We also need museums that examine our Partition and Emergency memories, anti-caste and environmental movements. Or consider the number of tribal art and culture museums mushrooming across India. These are beautifully designed to showcase the living habitats, folklore, music, costumes, jewellery, and faith of tribal communities. But they rarely go past images of the ‘exotic other’, freezing them as singing-and-dancing ‘calendar communities’ in a political vacuum. The museums are silent on some of the most raging questions afflicting them—about natural resources, livelihood, displacement and state alienation. By deliberately side-stepping difficult narratives, our museums fail to engage the ongoing social, economic and political debates that rage outside their white cube walls.
The indifference with which our museums exhibit history as a set of factoids is also a problem. The attitude is: ‘We have displayed the artifacts. If you still don’t get it, then tough luck!’ What does one attribute this arrogance toward imparting knowledge to? I don’t have an answer but I have a theory. Perhaps the roots lie in our historical Brahminical attitudes about sharing knowledge. The humbling, backbreaking work that goes into ensuring effective learning is absent.
The Remember Bhopal Museum offers an opportunity to upend these prevailing codes of our museum enterprise. Having worked on social movements in museums in the US, I was interested in telling contemporary stories of struggles in India in a three-dimensional museum space. A democracy is defined by not just the outcome of an argument but also how it is conducted. It is time our museums enter the argument.
Some survivors of the Union Carbide gas leak have in the past decade opposed a plan by the M.P. state government to build a memorial at the factory site because they were not actively consulted. They said that only survivors have the moral right to tell the story in a museum. The Remember Bhopal museum is their attempt at ensuring that the story of their 30-year anguish is not co-opted and sanitised by the government project. To that end, a team of survivors and activists got together in 2011 to curate the museum. It is the first museum in India that tells the story of a contemporary social movement and is predominantly reliant on oral histories. It has not accepted a single rupee from either the government or any corporate entity.
It is a space where the memories of trauma are shared and the struggle for justice is celebrated. It is meant to be a safe, empowering space that does not force survivors to abandon their anger as a precondition for entry. It does not urge them to ‘move on’, which has become a sort of a euphemism for an unstated inability to address wrongs in India today.
(Rama Lakshmi is the curator of the Remember Bhopal museum, inaugurated recently on the 30th anniversary of the Union Carbide gas disaster)