Process over products, museums over textbooks
Museums offer up to the public the objects of our history with slightly less context than you would find in a textbook
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This fortnight’s conversation on history is, mostly, a whole-hearted rant. But first some personal context. Late last month, Mrs Columnist gave me the best birthday present I’ve ever received. She booked all of us in for a weekend of museum-seeing and history-buffing in Portsmouth, down on the southern coast, not all that far from London. We hired a car in London, where this columnist currently lives, drove down to Portsmouth, checked in, dropped our bags, and immediately popped down to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards.
Portsmouth is the official home of the Royal Navy, and the Historic Dockyards is a sprawling complex of museums, museum ships, exhibition halls, cafés, restaurants and children’s play areas within the base that is open to the public. It is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. And when Mrs Columnist waved me through the gates with the words “Take as much time as you like. Happy Birthday”, my heart leapt in joy.
If you are the kind of person who enjoys maritime history, naval engineering, and ships and history in general—and what decent person doesn’t—then Portsmouth is a wonderland of things to see, do, read and think about. The real highlights of the smorgasbord of things on offer in the complex are three historic ships: the HMS Warrior, the first iron-clad British warship, the HMS Victory, upon which Nelson commanded the Battle of Trafalgar and ultimately died, and, most interesting of all, the remnants of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose.
Each of these ships is delightful to visit. They are all signposted quite well, full of small and big things to look at, and staffed by people who all seem extremely eager to lavish you with details and stories and anecdotes. Particular care had been taken to translate the mountains of material, in every sense of the word, into a form that was palatable and enjoyable to children.
The Mary Rose Museum was particularly stunning. I am not a museologist. But I know a good museum when I see one. And the efforts made to display the extremely fragile remnants of the Tudor ship that was an underwater wreck for over four centuries before being excavated in the 1980s, are stunning. Even if you have no real interest in maritime Tudor history, the museum is well worth a visit to experience how modern technology, old-fashioned archaeology and historical scholarship come together to create an experience for the whole family.
I spent most of the next day as well at the Dockyards, making the most of my birthday gift. No prizes for guessing the thought that ran through my head in the days afterwards: When, in the name of all that is sacred from the Indus Valley Civilization to the kingdom of Travancore, will India nurture and invest in a culture of high-quality museums and archives? I suspect there is no other country in the world with such a surfeit of historical material and resources that does less to preserve and popularize its own history.
Earlier this week, The Wire’s Choodie Shivaram wrote a piece titled “How The National Archives Of India Is Actually Destroying History”. The piece, troubling as it is with anecdotes about the recklessness and hubris that thrives at the national archives, will not come as a surprise to anybody who has to toil away at the coalface that is historical research in India. Recently a scholar who works on Indian numismatic history told me how he had to work with photographs of coins instead of the actual coins because administrators at museums or state archives would simply refuse to open up their steel safes and share the objects. In some cases, he said, he suspected that perhaps the keys had been lost and nobody wanted to own up to this. Some of these coins hadn’t been seen or photographed in decades. For all he knew, the coins were rotting and rusting away in forgotten safes.
What is most perplexing is that India is a society that is obsessed with its history. Perhaps more so now than it has been for a long time. A day doesn’t go by when there isn’t fresh, red- hot controversy over a biography of Aurangzeb, the archaeological provenance of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, or even the nature of the relationships Jawaharlal Nehru had with Vallabhbhai Patel. Acres of column inches are dedicated to criticizing Western scholars of Indian history or lamenting the rampant trafficking in Indian artefacts.
One would assume that all this heat is translating into an explosion of public interest in museums and archives. That the public is lining up to visit exhibitions of Mughal artefacts, Netaji papers, and Hindu scripture. That the government is directing some of that booming economic wealth into smashing new centres of research (to be fair, there has been some recent investment in digitizing manuscripts and holdings). And yet, most of our museums and archives remain much as they have for decades. This is perhaps because much of the popular obsession over Indian history has more to do with the product of historical inquiry—books, TV shows—than the far more messy process of historical inquiry that leads up to these products. But history, unlike, say, a cupcake or a motorcycle, is best understood with some cognizance of how the end product was arrived at.
Museums—and museums are as political as anything in history—help to alleviate this gap somewhat. They offer up to the public the objects of our history with slightly less context than you would find in a textbook. Museums give you the space to look before you read and hyperventilate.
But you know all this. So my point is: Portsmouth is great. You should go.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview