As we celebrate Museum Day, India set to lose its National Museum and other historic structures

Today is International Museum Day

Credit : Indie Journal

Three iconic buildings in Delhi of historical importance are set to be demolished for the Union Government’s Central Vista Avenue project. Last week, over 75  renowned scholars, artists, writers, curators and museum professionals from all over the world have called for an immediate halt to the project, which is set to begin amid the worst health emergency in India. On the occasion of International Museum Day, let’s understand the significance of the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and the National Archives Annexe, which are soon going to be lost forever.


Significance of location

One of the largest museums in India, the National Museum of India was built in 1949. Unlike most museums that are usually developed in repurposed buildings and forts, it is housed in a purpose-built building. “The museum is located exactly in front of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) office. It increased the cultural value of the vicinity. Erasing this building is like erasing the cultural value of the place,” says curator and archivist Amruta Dhalkar.


"Erasing this building is like erasing the cultural value of the place."


While it is unclear where the artifacts and objects from these three structures will be shifted, experts have stated that there was a reason why the three institutions were in close proximity with each other. “There was a clear logic in the urban planning of Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival and historical centres in close proximity to each other. The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not demolition. The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irrevocable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built over decades,” the statement released by scholars last week stated.


Logistics of movement

“The government has not given clarity over where and how exactly would the objects in these institutions be moved. Considering how old many of these artifacts and manuscripts are, it is going to be an extremely difficult process. Moreover, several objects at the National Museum of India have not even been catalogued yet, due to the sheer vastness of the museum and a large number of objects. If any uninventoried object goes missing or gets stolen during its movement, it’s as good as lost. There have been several instances of such valuable artifacts getting lost forever, but we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes,” Dhalkar said.

While this is the issue at the museum, most of the material at the National Archives Annexe is paper-based. As per reports, the archival records kept here include 45 lakh files, 25,000 rare manuscripts, more than 1 lakh maps and 1.3 lakh Mughal documents. With monsoon looming over, movement of this delicate material at the Annexe is dangerous. “Not to mention, we have no idea where exactly they are going to be stored. Storing and conserving old paper requires extensive attention to detail. Its exposure to temperature, light, moisture must be strictly regulated. They need to ensure this during transport as well. How is all of this going to be done? Again, no idea,” she added.

Voicing these concerns, even the scholars said in their statement, “We are concerned that such a shift would impact the state of conservation of several objects. Even under normal circumstances, it would be a complex and risky operation to shift the diverse and irreplaceable treasures of the National Museum, the archival records held in the National Archives, and the manuscript holdings of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The current pandemic only exacerbates these risks.”


No clarity on further plans

The collection at the IGNCA is temporarily shifted to the Janpath Hotel. Asserting the significance of what heritage structures like these represent, Dhalkar says, “Museums don’t just have physical objects. It’s still possible to move these objects, but what about the intangible assets? The artifacts at the Centre are temporarily being moved. But what about the stories of the communities, art, languages and what not that is conserved at the IGNCA?”


Historians have pointed out that the details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque.


Historians have pointed out that the details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque. While it is said that the objects from the National Museum will be displayed in the North and South blocks of the new structure, its plan is still unclear. And many have frowned upon this as well. “Objects at a museum are not just any objects on display. They have contextual importance. Those objects displayed and views together in a sequence have a meaning attached to them. Scattering them across Central Vista Avenue is not going to serve the purpose,” Dhalkar explained.

“The project as a whole will forever alter the historic urban plan of Lutyens’ Delhi, a piece of world heritage that has become an integral part of the cultural and political life of independent India,” researchers state.

While scholars from around the world have asked for a temporary suspension of the project at the moment due to COVID crisis, they have asserted that in the long run, demolition should not take place without proper consultation, transparency and a democratic process.

Amid the whole controversy, the government has been claiming that the heritage will be conserved during the entire process. However, urban planners, historians have questioned these claims. Currently, PIL challenging the demolition of the heritage structures and construction of Central Vista is being heard at the Delhi High Court. The Central Government, however, continues to dismiss the concerns, also going as far as calling it "sheer abuse of the process of law".