The Internet had created new ways of bringing the museum to people across the globe
International Museum Day is celebrated every May 18, and it began in 1977 as a move to revive interest in museums and connect them with their communities through various cultural projects. The theme of the International Museum Day 2018 is “Hyperconnected museums: new approaches, new publics”. This is a natural theme in the age of the Internet where it has become possible to take virtual tour of the museums without physically visiting the place. Museums have thus moved out of the physical locations. And it has also become possible for museums in different parts of the world to cooperate and coordinate and make their respective collections accessible to people everywhere.
The first museums in the modern period came up in the 18th century, especially when the European countries began to collect art treasures from the colonies, which was a consequence of conquests. But there was also another aspect to museums. It became an institution of collective memory in modern times, with its collection of art pieces and artefacts of the society in which they are located.
The National Museum in New Delhi which was established in 1949 is a collection of art pieces excavated from the times of the Indus Valley civilization to the late classical period in 11th and 12th centuries of the Common Era (CE). Interestingly, it is the British colonial administration in India that had gathered the invaluable pieces, some of which were gathered during archaeological excavations in different parts of the country in the early part of the 20th century. The collections in museums in Chennai, in Sarnath and Patna reconstruct Indian history of the ancient and early medieval period. The museum of natural history at Kolkata (then Calcutta) contains specimens of extinct animals of the past. The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad is an example of an individual’s collection that grew to the size of a museum, where the principle was the choice of the noble in the princely state of Hyderabad at the turn of the 20th century.
There is quite a lot of the art of India in museums in Britain and in the United States. The British Museum, which came into existence through an act of the British Parliament in 1753, had through the 19th and early 20th centuries had acquired many of the invaluable art works and manuscripts of ancient and medieval India. The famous Buddhist friezes of Amaravati in modern Andhra Pradesh are now part of the British Museum collection. As a colonial power, Britain had transported art works not just from India but also from Syria and Greece to the British Museum collection. Like the Amaravati Buddhist friezes, the Elgin marbles from Greece are now part of the British Museum collection. In the United States, many private collectors who had acquired medieval paintings of the Mughal and Rajput period have gathered them in several museums from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
The renowned Louvre in Paris has art works from Egypt and other parts of Europe collected during Napoleon’s conquests in the early part of the 19th century. The Louvre, it is interesting to note, has been established by an act of the National Assembly in 1793, soon after the French Revolution of 1789 which overthrew the monarchy.
But in the last five years or so, the concept of the museum has been reinvented to include historical experiences of a people from living memory. The first is the Bhopal Gas Victims museum in Bhopal which has put together material of different kinds to capture the December 3, 1984 gas leak from the Union Carbide factory, which killed three thousand people and blighted the lives of thousands more. The other example is that of the Partition Museum set up in Amritsar, which seeks to bring together the memory bric-a-brac of the trauma of Partition experienced by individuals and families. These projects show that the idea of museum is no more that of an institution which is created and managed by committees and that they operate on abstract principles of gathering information about societies. These projects also change the idea that the museum is a collection of artefacts belonging to a remote past.
We can see the future museum moving in two directions. There is the hyper-connectivity movement, where an attempt is being made to connect museums worldwide, so that they do not remain isolated, and people can understand their own past, and also that of people elsewhere as well. This would create awareness about the common past that whole of humanity shares though divided by geography and culture. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) notes that 36,000 museums in 157 countries and territories had participated in the International Museum Day activities in 2017. The other aspect is that people are taking initiatives to create new museums around memory events of their choice as we have seen in the case of the Bhopal gas victims’ museum and that of India’s Partition. It shows that people who visit museums are not passive participants but they contribute to the collection in a museum. The museum is not just a place where visual materials of collective memory are placed for viewing, but it is also a place which is created by individuals through collective action.
The museum, a product of 18th-19th centuries Europe, is then reinventing itself in the 21st century, and it is using technological breakthrough of the Internet to create a new identity for itself.
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