International Museum Day 2022: Visit India’s first public museum – The Indian Museum in Kolkata

By Monidipa Dey,

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has been celebrating May 18 as the International Museum Day every year since 1977. The chief aim of the International Museum Day is to raise general awareness about the fact that “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.” Museums, which are a unique place for making new discoveries and imbibing knowledge, have the power to transform the world, by teaching about the past and at the same time opening minds to new ideas and possibilities.

Historically museums developed in direct response to the growing human desire to understand the world through the viewing of a collection of objects in closed spaces, which were gathered from the world outside. The collecting and arranging of objects is a common human trait that has been seen in various forms across the diverse human cultures that have been present globally from ancient times. The earliest evidence of collecting objects and arranging them in order was seen in the array of grave-side objects and other utilitarian goods that were part of the material culture of some of the earliest human civilizations. It has been suggested by some that collecting and arranging these objects arises from the human tendency to inquire and acquire, along with the inclination to preserve and interpret. Collections are different from random groupings of objects, as the former shows the presence of order (there are logical connections/ relationships among the objects). Thus, collections are made with a specific aim in mind, while assemblages are haphazard and occur by chance. Objects in any collection are primarily musealized, which means that they have been removed from their original environment (natural or cultural) and made a part of the collection, and in the process acquired new meanings. Thus, the history of museums is more or less a history of acquiring (collecting) and a meaningful categorization (classification) of objects. In museums, the concepts of collection and preservation are also closely associated, as in order for the collections to be useful the objects have to be preserved well. While some objects are more durable than others, some objects are more difficult to preserve, such as organic matter (skin, plant based objects, textiles), and need much more care to preserve them for the learning to continue over generations.  

Collecting objects as trait began with the earliest humans as they settled to form societies, and various archaeological and anthropological studies have shown there were collecting traditions among the ancient human cultures in Arabia, Africa, and Asia, long before collecting traditions started in Europe. The tradition of collections started in ancient cultures for various reasons, which included for garnering social prestige, for economic reasons, and also to increase group loyalty. Among the oldest recorded collections one belongs to the ancient Sumarian city of Uruk (530 BCE), located in Iraq. While excavating a temple site in Urak in the early 1900s, C.L. Woolley and his colleagues found a collection of antiquities, which were dated to around 2000–2500 BCE. The collection had a boundary stone, parts of a statue, mace head, clay foundation cone, and some clay tablets; and the collection was documented in inscriptions that read “found in the ruins of Ur, the work of Bur-Sin, King of Ur, which while searching for the ground plan [of the temple] the governor of Ur found, and I saw and wrote out, for the marvel of beholders.” The Sumarian culture by the third millennium BCE had extensive collections in their state archives at Ebla; and Mesopotamia by the second millennium BCE had recorded collections of old inscriptions that taught scribes how to document the collections. China also saw collections of gold and bronze objects during the Shang dynasty rule (1600– 1025 BCE), while during the Tang dynasty reign (CE 618–907), collecting objects was a popular hobby among the aristocrats.

India too had early social institutions that functioned to keep the collective social memories alive. One such example is the stupa that after acquiring the sacred body relics of Buddha preserved and held them within it, and was of immense spiritual value. Ancient and medieval Indian texts also frequently use terms such as Vithi, Alekhyagriha, Chitrasala, etc. that refer to various sculptural and painting galleries mostly in royal palaces. Various Sanskrit plays, such as “Pratima” by Bhasa, refer to exhibition galleries (permanent and mobile) attached with the various royal courts. In modern times the first public museum in India, The Indian Museum in Calcutta, was founded in 1814, and it was based on a foreign model imported from Europe.

The word museum that immediately creates an image of a place of learning, originates from the Greek word mouseion, or “seat of the muses”. This was derived from the name of a philosophical institution known as the Temple of the Muses (a Greek goddess), which was considered to be “a place of contemplation” where objects were kept for learning. The Temple of the Muses was founded in the city of Alexandria by Ptolemy Sotor (305–283 BCE), and the institution held many collected objects related to natural history and art, while it also had a large library, gardens, lecture halls, and dormitories.

Historically museums have evolved to serve different purposes at different times, but their main role has always been interpreting culture, religion, and nature; and encouraging better understanding and learning through viewing. Even today museums continue to play their main role as institutions of learning and serve as an important educator over generations, and will continue to do so long as humans remain curious about the surrounding world.

(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)