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We need more museums, not memorials

Rama Lakshmi
Rama LakshmiDec 16, 2014 | 09:36

We need more museums, not memorials

When our un-smart cities build more and more malls instead of newer museums, we have something to worry about.

But here is something more alarming - we seem to keep creating the same kinds of museums again and again.

I call it a crisis of imagination.

My own personal museum journey began in the United States a little over nine years ago where I worked with the history museum in St Louis and conducted curatorial research and oral histories on the disability rights movement. There I learnt how a museum can curate, display and tell stories of important questions surrounding democracy, justice and social protest.

I began wondering about our own museum landscapes – an endless parading of cultural and national pride, but very little room for difficult contemporary histories and social memories.

In the absence of museums curating our contemporary histories, we have members of the media and politics dabbling in weaving stories about history – not always the healthiest of platforms.

A few years ago, I began to live a double life – that of a journalist and a curator. My museum avatar remained a minimized window that I kept maximising during off-days, weekends and vacations – sort of like a “basement curator”.

At every public forum, private conversations with friends and associates, I began to proselytise. A few would roll their eyes at the mention of the word “museum”. But almost everybody agreed and shared their plight of having visited indifferent and boring museums in India.

Some parents said they are forced to take their children to the mall on Sundays instead of the museums. Other well-travelled families said they loved going to museums in Western countries, but are unable to find reasons to go to their own museums here.

One reason for this is there is no storytelling in our history museums. The other is there is very little of our present in the depictions of the distant, remote past.

For long, I have wondered why we can’t connect the pottery shards from the Harappan valley to a history of the potter community in India in the gallery – depicting them as the first literate community of the land and restoring pride in the way in which urban, upper-caste Indians view some groups.

What we have instead is a current explosion in the number of memorials.

If you travelled across India in the past decade, you would have noticed that memorials have mushroomed everywhere. Most Indian politicians opt to build memorials in their cities – memorial to other dead politicians, freedom fighters, religious gurus, philosophers, to the military martyrs. Memorials are a great way to pay homage, create sites of reverential pilgrimage. They are often beautiful buildings with a statue or a bust at the centre and sport an architect’s cleverly designed play with light and space.

But personally, I am not a fan of memorials. A memorial is often the state’s way of ending the debate. It is meant to be a quiet site that belongs to the realm of “shradhanjalis”. It is easier to implement because it does not involve the quiet, backbreaking work of curating stories and people’s voices.

A museum, on the other hand, gives us an opportunity to portray memories, voices, stories and objects. It lets us tell stories of injustice, war, trauma, anger and difficult incidents.

The Madhya Pradesh government also launched a nationwide competition for the best design to build a memorial to remember the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak. The budget to build the memorial is over 100 crore rupees.

But some of the Bhopal survivors asked the question that strikes powerfully at the heart of not only their battle for justice, but also the museum discipline: "Who has the moral right to build a memorial and a museum at the Union Carbide factory site?"

Suddenly, how we remember the twin-tragedies of what happened that fateful night in Bhopal in 1984 and the ongoing 30-year-old battle of the survivors became contested territory.

The survivors said in every statement that only they have the moral right to build a museum.

That is when I stepped in.

“Why don’t you try to create a template of the kind of museum you wish to have,” I asked to Rasheeda Bi in 2009, whose team had erected a small one-room temporary museum in 2004 called yaad-e-haadsa – by placing a series of victims’ portraits and their objects on a table in their campaign office.

With that conversation, my work began with the minimised window and a maximum-museum.

A team of survivors, activists, academics, volunteers and I got together to build a museum that tells the story of not only what happened that fateful night in 1984 but also the struggle for justice in the last 30 years. It tracks the story of how victims became warriors.

Neil Postman, an American scholar, wrote in Museum News a few years ago that a museum must conduct an argument with society and direct attention to what is difficult to contemplate. The Bhopal movement asks unsettling questions about corporate accountability, environment and the long process of justice delivery.

So does the Bhopal museum.

The Remember Bhopal Museum, which opened on December 2, 2014 after 30 years of the tragedy, seeks to tell our larger museum community that it is time to build new kinds of museums more suitable for the questions we confront today.

More importantly, it has the potential to be a key teaching tool for students of environmental movement in India.

Since it opened, survivors have wept inside the museum listening to oral history audios and looking at the objects. School students have gone back and generated classroom discussions on the subject. Tourists have arrived and expressed surprise why such a museum took so long to come.

On a personal note, my museum-jihad has just begun. Many more to come. Watch this space, as they say.

Last updated: May 19, 2016 | 12:09
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