Changing India and the role of museums

I’ve just returned from Delhi, where I went to help deliver a training seminar for museum directors and senior staff from museums all over India, focusing on museum interpretation, communication and learning. This was generously hosted at the National Museum Institute in the National Museum and supported by the British Council. I was also there to do some work with my co-directors in India, Eliza Hilton and Katherine Rose. We were doing research to help the V&A with their web and marketing strategy in India. Although Flow has been in India for 2 years (registered 1 year ago), I’ve not flown there before now. That’s because our company policy is only to fly when necessary and because we managed pretty well to work with Skype and other tools. Also, I’ve travelled fairly substantially in India, and read big piles of fiction and fact about it, since falling in love with the country in the 90s, so I was waiting for a good reason to visit again.

The biggest impression of my visit was that I didn’t know India (especially Delhi) as it is now. In 1994 there were more cows on the roads than cars, the air was thick with particulates, the verges were thick with sacking tents and very underfed people and dogs, and every moment felt to be verging on potential chaos. There used to be more hasslers, more crazy electric wires, more paan-spit smeared walls, more powercuts, more sarees, more holy men, more bad food and, well, just more. I didn’t miss any of these particular things but I did feel slightly sad at the passing of a provisional feeling, which seemed to exist around the illicit street stalls, the diversity of traffic (including the traditional horse-drawn tongas now outlawed) and the housing now replaced by apartment blocks. However, Delhi was a darn sight more comfortable and manageable this time. The comfort was enhanced by staying at the International India Centre, a solicitous haven for academic and literary dignitaries, nestled in the lush Lodhi gardens. This was a real contrast to the Pahar Ganj hostel I’d stayed in before. I went for constitutional nature walks twice a day in the gardens, keeping steady/slow walking pace with all the locals. The air was criss-crossed with birds and insects I can’t name. Crumbling but sturdy Mughal tombs in every vista made the park a very romantic setting for courting couples. Being at the tail-end of monsoon season meant that the gardens were all very green, but I recall them all being much more scrubby and ill-kempt than now.

Delhi’s change is partly down to the clean-up in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, partly due to increasing corporate wealth and investment over the past 15 years. The satellite city of Gurgaon has grown in 15 years with the gleaming offices of AMEX, GE, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Motorola, Honda and many more. A vast multi-billion pound development around New Delhi, which includes a £270 million Formula One track, is intended to boost the economy in the area. However, there are concerns that the change is no more than superficial. Those compensated for loss of land (if they are able to claim) are spending gains on big ugly houses and SUVs rather than investing in co-operative projects. The change has been too rapid and too decoupled from work to maintain ‘bigger than self’ values.

I’m reflecting on the nature of change in localities more intently than usual because I’ve just read Paul Kingsnorth’s book Real England: The Battle against the Bland. He writes about the ways that England’s character, the particular spirit of its places having evolved over centuries of human-scale activities, has been all but destroyed in recent years by pub companies, by the privatisation of waterways, by supermarkets decimating independent shops and small farmers, by housing developers, in short by a planning system geared to unthinking growth and driven by the greed of big companies. At the moment, the Coalition government are seeking to reform planning laws so that it is even easier for companies to override barriers to growth, to build big housing, industry or retail infrastructure in more protected places.

Although Kingsnorth’s book is very much about England, the final chapter zooms out to show how this is happening everywhere. On Delhi, he writes: “In twenty years’ time, when all of Delhi’s street vendors, tailors, small shopkeepers, kettle-menders, cobblers, machinists, hawkers and cooks are but a memory, and in their place is a productive, modern, profitable, sterile and inhuman maze of plate glass and chain stores, then the success of India’s development and modernisation will be hymned by business editors and politicians. All of the gains will have been tallied up and none of the losses, except in the hearts of those who understand what is missing. The fields will have been cleared of weeds, the butterflies which remain will be confined to the hedge banks, and India, according to all the benchmarks which matter, will be a better place.”

It struck me how little museums or museum staff, in the UK and anywhere else that I’m aware of, have voiced their concerns or organised initiatives on a significant scale to protect the built and natural environment. I may be wrong and would love to be corrected. I realise that many museums stand as a refuge, a last outpost of heritage in towns and villages, but I wonder what more they can do to resist these damaging changes.

Another impetus for these thoughts was a question asked at the seminar by Dr Uttam Lal, an Assistant Professor in Geography at Sikkim University, which is establishing a museum and heritage library for Sikkim. He asked a question referring to the urgent need for museums to conserve heritage, especially in terms of the living traditions of indigenous peoples (for example, of North East India) while these traditions are rapidly being lost along with a process of environmental destruction. (The North East has been subject to widespread deforestation and is now threatened by glacier melt and other impacts of climate change.)

The most common question that Flow hears is how museums in India can modernise and keep up to date with the changes sweeping other sectors. The pertinent question of Dr Lal has to be the reason why museums need to rapidly modernise. They must become effective at educating people why and how they must protect their habitat and respect diversity.


One response to “Changing India and the role of museums

  1. Hi Bridget – you say “The change has been too rapid and too decoupled from work to maintain ‘bigger than self’ values.” May I turn this round a bit … how could we encourage people to *develop* their ‘bigger than self’ values? (Even more than retain, as the younger generation in particular won’t be retaining much…)

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