From the history of money to the history of theatre, exhibits on Kolkata culture, or a recap of the life of Bengal stalwarts, the museums in Kolkata can be seriously idiosyncratic. A plus point is that some of them are housed in heritage buildings which have got a fresh lease of life through adaptive reuse.
RESERVE BANK OF INDIA MUSEUM
Did you know that salt was considered so important in ancient times that it was used as a means of financial exchange and even to pay wages? Or that until mid-1960s, the country of Yap (a cluster of islands in the Western Pacific Ocean) used doughnut-shaped stones (in sizes ranging from a saucer to a milestone) as 'fei', their currency? You will find more such historical anecdotes illustrated in the Reserve Bank of India Museum in Kolkata. The second one in the country, the museum occupies the ground floor of a more than a century-old heritage building from where the RBI started functioning after its formation in 1935. Before entering the main museum, pause at the reception area (which also has a souvenir shop) to take a look at the artistic decorations made from old, out-of-circulation coins, and shredded currency notes. Through infographics, old artefacts and machineries, photographs, dioramas and interactive displays, the main museum talks about the evolution of money, the history of banking in India, the role of the RBI, and more. Children will love playing the interactive games on saving money. At the end of the guided tour, you will be given a certificate with your name printed on an old machine that was earlier used for bonds issued by the government.
Address: 8 Council House Street, BBD Bag, Kolkata 700001. Timing: Open every day (except national holidays), 10am to 5pm. Entry free. Groups have to book in advance. Videography not allowed.
It is the Corinthian pillars of this 19th century edifice that will first draw your attention. Facing the Hooghly River, the pillars’ capitals are said to resemble the simplified style followed in the portico of the Tower of the Winds in Athens. Named after Charles Theophilus Metcalfe (acting governor-general of India from 1835-36), who was instrumental in ensuring the freedom of the Indian press, it was home to the then Calcutta Public Library and Imperial Library. While the Hall has been developed as a place to hold exhibitions, it also houses an exposition on the city called ‘Ami Kolkata’ (I am Kolkata). But instead of the city’s past, you will see the depiction of the city’s vibrant culture and lifestyle. Look out for the interesting art installations and displays which showcase cinema posters, visual culture, music, the literary arts, and city scenes. You depart with the sounds of the city resonating in your ears with an audio treat that highlights an orchestra of soundscapes recorded on streets of the city.
Address: 12 Strand Road, near the Millennium Park main gate. Timings: 10am to 5pm, all days. No entry fee.
This grand building in the middle of a sprawling garden draws inspiration from Italian Renaissance architecture. It has changed hands several times. Bengal’s Nawab Mir Jafar was its first occupant (after the Battle of Plassey in 1757) and subsequently gifted it to Governor-General Warren Hastings, who lived there until 1780. It also served as the official residence of the lieutenant governors and viceroys of British India, and as the Imperial Library. Prior to its renovation, it used to house the National Library. The library now operates from a new building on the premises. Post renovation, the Belvedere Hall has been opened as a museum with a permanent exhibition with two separate areas. At the entrance is a sculpture gallery maintained by the Indian Museum. In the former banquet hall (and the gallery running around it) is the exhibition titled Icons of Nationalism – from the soil of Bengal. Established by the Union Ministry of Culture, the exhibition has been built around four notable Bengalis — Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Key events in their life and achievements have been highlighted through timelines, photographs, copies of newspaper clippings and letters, and audio presentations.
Address: Block A, Alipore, near the Alipore Zoo. Timings: 10am to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday. No entry fee. Guided tour available.
KOLKATA PORT TRUST MARITIME ARCHIVES AND HERITAGE CENTRE
The Fairlie Warehouse, one of the many old warehouses that line the Strand Road just before it ends near the Kolkata-end of the Howrah Bridge, has been converted into a Maritime Archives and Heritage Centre under the aegis of Kolkata Port Trust. The early history of Kolkata, the Hooghly river system, the establishment of the docks, the people powering the Port Trust, the various landmark events connected with the port or its administration, important social incidents, including the damage to life and property during the two World Wars, have been well documented through informative panels, display cases of original artefacts, and replicas of lighthouses, ships, and more. Even the chapter of indentured labour travelling from India to the foreign shores is well documented.
Address: 6, Strand Rd, Kolkata, West Bengal 700001. Timing: Open Monday to Friday (closed on weekends and other holidays), 10am to 5pm.
Tucked away in Salt Lake, on the eastern fringe of the city, the Theatre Museum has been founded by the Natya Sodh Sansthan. The Sansthan, founded in 1981, has been working as a resource and research centre. A part of their archival material and artefacts have been displayed in the museum. The displays have been divided into three categories – Sanskrit Theatre, Folk Theatre and Modern Theatre. From original manuscripts to photographs and posters, books to old tickets, it is a veritable walk down memory lane. You can also learn about the evolution of theatrical stages through the scaled down replicas on display. There are also masks, and costumes, on display. Prior permission is necessary for entry.
Address: Natya Bhavan, EE-8, Phase: II, Bidhan Nagar (Salt Lake), Kolkata-700091.