IGRMS: Noah's Ark

Dr. Kalyan Chakravarty

    The question is not the extent to which a museum should be involved in social or economic issues faced by the communities, or whether it is only a community museum which should be so involved, but whether, any museum can afford to survive in India, or anywhere else in the world, without reorienting its outlook for serving the living museum of the country, and its true curators - the living communities. The livelihood or social issues are not divorced in India from issues of the artistic or scientific expression of communities, which the museums have to gear themselves up to address simultaneously. The museums in India need to transform into community museums by not only re-contextualizing their collection in the backdrop of Indian cultures and communities, but by going out into their midst, to relocate this collection as a dynamic element in the recollection of their life enhancing traditions, for the shaping of their economy and society.

    In fact, it is the psychological and infrastructural block in bridging the hiatus between the art in the museum and the repository and curator of this art in the living museum of the country, and the inability of the museum to attract the communities to its collections or activities, that constitutes the biggest challenge for a museum in India. Most of the museums in the country have been unable to break out of the colonial mental mould, and transcend their current role of being old curiosity shops. The Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya or the National Museum of Mankind has been trying to reverse this process in a modest way by introducing a new museum movement in the country, in which the country itself is seen as the true museum, and the so-called community museum becomes a memory bank and a catalytic Research and Development agent for harnessing the material and incorporeal culture of the communities to galvanizing the process of planning and development.

    The mission of the Manav Sangrahalaya should be read in the background of history of Museums in the last two hundred years in the world, in which they have been created, more often than not, as monuments to the cultural genocide of communities, and have been associated with the promotion of the image of victorious, totalitarian or military regimes. In military dictatorships in Uruguay or Brazil, the older Museums were closed or starved of funds, while huge museums were created in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR as monuments to military might. In these museums, the mere physical survival of rather than any intrinsic value in dominant cultures gave legitimacy to their false representation of subjugated communities. Even after acquiring political independence, most of the urbanized and technified communities in the independent countries accepted this museum philosophy, and went on treating museums as mirrors of their historical telos to objectify and represent rural communities on vestigial anthropological curiosities, as superseded beginnings, in their march to economic progress. These dominant communities tended to equated their own interests and plans with national interests and plans, and to subject the variety and complexity of local knowledge systems and traditions to homogenizing, simplifying, universalizing postulates of knowledge. The museums were developed as charnel houses, littered with the debris of destruction wrought among rural communities by the global village communities, riding on the wave of technical, industrial and information revolution. They continued working, consciously or unconsciously, as soporific propaganda machines for lulling the communities into accepting their slow, non catastrophic ecological or biological extinction. At their worst, the museums thus became teleological agents of the destruction of the communities. At best, they were developed as places for aesthetic contemplation of the past divorced from its context, or, for sad but resigned reflection on the loss of ethnographic identities, which were interesting, but were rightly doomed to die.

    In fact, it is the study of material culture as a concrete cultural product, or specimen, divorced from the study of the total culture of communities, or from their specific temporal and spatial context, that has been responsible for this growing museumization of the communities, and for the conversion of living cultural landscapes into cabinets of curiosities, ethnological museums, and finally, into community, environment or eco museums. Very few of these museums are concerned with the recognition or revitalization of traditions, bridging society and art. Mostly, they continue to be refinements of the older appropriative museums, with grudging concessions to regional sentiments. It is true that some museums, like those of the Pacific Islanders of Vanuatu or of the Maoris of New Zealand, have been trying, in recent years, to reassert their customs and traditions, to reorganize the script and selection of objects, and, to substitute a custodial for the older memorial role vis-a-vis their collections. New Museology has also attempted the task of whittling down the distance between the viewers and the objects viewed, and has induced a change from the univocal story of conquering people told by themselves, to a new manner of storytelling, synthetic of different cultural voices of the suppressed communities of Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa. Exhibitions about the Holocaust, internment of Japanese Americans in US prison camps in World War II, the violence and fear surrounding the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, injustices done by USA in Vietnam and Latin America, have now come to the History Museum of the United States, correcting their celebratory nature. Simultaneously, a movement for restitution and return of cultural properties to original custodians has begun in the Americas, Australia and in Japan. However, it is not only necessary to restitute and recontextulaise the objects, and reorient their textual narrations, but also to generate initiatives for the replenishment and recycling of traditions represented by such objects. This is not being done.

    The paramount need and urgency of going beyond these limited initiatives, within museum premises, to involvement in the self renewal initiatives of communities, has to be understood by the museums today. It has to be understood by them that the identity of Indian folk and tribal communities in rural areas, like the identity of pre colonial communities of Australia or New Zealand, has hinged on the theory and practice of co-evolutionary interdependence of human communities with other organic and inorganic communities of the earth; on a pantheistic sense of permeation of all forms with common life and vibration; on the acceptance of the dynamic rhythm, colour, tone and hue of nature, in song, dance, costume, subsistence technologies; on a union of art with life, of beauty with utility; on community rather than individual rights and obligations; and finally, on a great diversification of the life base, in trophic patterns, in the use of nature’s resources, or in responses to different agro climatic environments. Museums in India have to realize that the disadvantaged rural communities, that are the curators of the in situ museums of their habitats, are not outside the pale of Indian history, which is not the exclusive domain of the industrialized, urbanized people. Instead, Indian history is itself the history of the pre colonial Indian people living in the vast rural hinterland. The question of survival of the identity of rural communities is also the question of the survival of Indian identity, which may yet provide valuable lessons for saving the human race from itself, and for protecting the museums in India from losing their relevance.

    It was the British who were primarily responsible for initiating the process of musemization of communities in India by opening up community habitats to courts, jails, banks, roads, missionaries, followed by parasites and scroungers including money lenders, shopkeepers, forest contractors and officious civil servants. However, the British had confined themselves to indirect rule through local intermediaries. After independence, this seemingly laissez faire policy has given way to an interventionist policy of development. A democratically elected majority, guided by what Karl Pooper called ‘the high tide of prophecy, and the sense of an inexorable process in history’, is set on the rational reordering of the physical and ideological world of the communities, for reducing it to an artificial existence within the walls of museums. In this process of forced alienation of rural communities from their own traditions, the relatively stable world inhabited by them earlier has become part of a larger world in which all factors have become mobile; in which monetary and legal transactions have assumed precedence over barter and oral agreement; and the communities have become objects of quantifiable targets of expenditure, which have often ignored the quality of their life, local values and customs.

    In introducing folk and tribal communities to the process of planned development, planners in India have often tended to ignore the inter regional variations among them in terms of their resource mobilization capacity, population and resource base, and treated them as a homogenous group. The treatment of communities as a homogenous group has been unfortunate because, the great and little traditions, the plural and encapsulated society, the homogenous, uni-ethic tribe and the heterogeneous multiethnic caste, the obtruded and natural modes of production coexist in every community habitat. As a result, the developmental assistance has widened the gulf and intensified exploitative relations among these communities. The museums have stood by, ignoring or gleefully reflecting the results of such homogenizing development. They have continued to enrich their collections, divorcing the community art from community life, while new technological and industrial museums have come in, to display uncritically, and even eulogistically, the products of globalization, rather than its process.

    India must retain the living museum of its heterogeneous, complex, living community system, in which different human groups are able to grow synergistically rather than in competition, and combine for productive purpose. It must create museums to mirror and sustain these communities and groups. Just as the multiple and complex nutritional property in poly-culture cannot be transferred to transgenic crops, so the individual beauty and vitality of the different Indian communities cannot be transferred into a uni-cultural group of people, or into a mono-cultural museum. Today, the interdependence of the rural Indian communities with the diversity of ecosystems and species, must be seen by community museums as valuable and worth preserving per se, to exclude reliance on any particular life or resource forms, so that disease or disturbance of the ecology and resource base in one part, is not translated into a distruction of all other parts. The eco conservation practices of the Indian rural communities, which are in consonance with the natural self regenerating processes of nature, need not be shored up through in situ museums against the unprecedented and destructive intervention of the biosphere people, which has been leading "not only to the death of species, but to an end of birth". Museums in India cannot adopt the ostrich-like policy of turning their back on the fact that a biological, genetic, molecular and cultural reductionism, and a growing monoculture of crops, trees, organisms, life and the mind, has been introduced in India in the wake of external and internal colonization, that this has gone hand in hand with the domestication of the Indian community habitats, which were living museums earlier, into museums of objects, or that the Indian identity, which is, ultimately, a plurality of egalitarian "tribal" or stratified "caste" identities, is being submerged under the uniform homogenized identity.

    The Manav Sangrahalaya has been created in the backdrop of and in response to this context of the fast changing cultural landscape of India. It is dedicated to developing strategies for protecting these eco-sphere communities, living in close relationship with their eco-niches, from the biosphere people, who keep on prospecting, exploiting and switching from one eco-niche to another to maximize profit. It celebrates the truth that the folk and tribal communities of rural India possess the ability to recognize, codify, classify, present their knowledge and harness it to harvesting nature, through eco-specific, regional models of development without destruction; that the right to environmental self determination of such communities should not be overridden by concepts of overriding national or international interest, or terra nullius; and that, the Museum is only an agency for assisting them in the recollection and replenishment of their life enhancing knowledge and traditions. The Manav Sangrahalaya does not aim at exhibiting physical artifacts, as mere specimens of languishing, vanishing or dead cultures. Rather, it seeks to project, preserve, invigorate and present valuable elements of living cultures and build protective ramparts around endangered ones. It does not suggest that a physically or culturally moribund community is, of necessity, a community which deserves to die and find a niche in a Museum. Instead, it questions the aberrations, violations, deviations and disorders within dominant communities, which may have survived because of aggressive patterns of conduct, which have nothing to do with their validity for human well-being or survival. Hence, this Museum does not raise the question as to whether the many small "backward" communities need to be exhibited as a peripheral and vanishing presence. Instead, it poses the question whether the dominant community or the human race itself is not fast becoming a peripheral presence, doomed to extinction, by ignoring values cherished and transmitted by the ‘backward’ communities. It tries to take small steps towards forestalling this by galvanizing and disseminating the vital and valuable elements of human culture, which may be dormant as much in indigenous, subordinate and ‘marginal’ communities, as in dominant and ‘advanced’ communities.

    What distinguishes the Museum of Mankind at Bhopal from other open air museums of the world, therefore, is the fact that this Museum considers itself as a dynamic instrument for preserving community habitats, their bio-cultural diversity, bio-conservation strategies, knowledge and skills. It considers ex situ conservation through display or storage, collection and documentation as an unavoidable and evil necessity, and as a very insignificant contribution to its primary objective of in situ salvage and revitalization. It looks at the country as the living museum, and conservation of the untold and untapped heritage created by human beings through creative interactions with the human and non human communities in nature as a far superior objective to that of mere passive display of heritage objects in museum galleries, conceived like mortician’s parlors or transit shed godowns. The Museum has been trying, therefore, through pilot projects, to identify and highlight those elements of community life-ways in rural hinterlands, which can be adopted with advantage by urban communities, that have been cut off by the commodification, technification and industrialization, from the variety, complexity and flexibility of such life ways.

    The Museum is trying, simultaneously, to act as a Research and Development Agency to catalyze government funding into alternative channels, away from the mega developmental models of mining, ranching, irrigation, land-development. It has been trying to demonstrate that, rural architecture made of perishable material is often more energy efficient, durable, functionally viable and aesthetically appropriate in a particular context than urban architecture of concrete, glass and steel. It has been suggesting that indigenous water management systems, hugging the lie and slope of the land and respecting the catchments and water-veins in village, are better capable of capturing the water resource in nature than mega dam projects, which destroy more sources than they generate. It has been pointed out that 95% of the herbs we dismiss as weeds, out of ignorance of their functions, are being used traditionally by communities for their own health care; and that, we should use this community knowledge only with prior informed consent of and compensation to the community. Location specific, cost effective solutions, which are human capital using and material capital generating, and, are also non-polluting and ecology respecting, are advocated and advertised by the Museum for adaption and propagation. In this way, the Museum combats the notion that only the big is beautiful, and points out that, whatever is aggressively advertised as the slickest, the smartest, the quickest solution, may not be the best from the point of view of human survival, wellbeing and bounty.

    The Museum at Bhopal does not consider the past alone as its preserve, the Indian tribal or prehistoric man as its only concern, or the indigenous traditional knowledge systems as the only areas of its investigation. It has concerned itself seriously with issues of scientific research and investigation, with a bearing on community well being, with different areas of ethno-sciences, with interface between contemporary and traditional architecture, with urban and country planning, in and ex situ preservation of germ-plasm in minor forest timber produce, viable patterns of water and physical resource sharing and their impact on cultural patterns in the Himalayan system, and, with measures to deal with ecological degradation. It has looked beyond the Indian frontiers and organized programs to explore the identity and difference of Indian communities in the context of other communities of the globe, in South, Southeast, Near, Far East and Central Asia, and even in Europe, among the Roma communities, which have migrated there, carrying many facets of nomadic culture and language from India. It has participated in World congresses on Archaeology, Ethno-biology, Musicology, Rock Art, Museography, Eco-tourism, Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Cultural Diversity, Conservation, Globalization and Translation, in order to establish common platforms of intra and inter-community dialogue, technology transfer, and collaboration for community-regarding action, combining Ecology, Equity, Economics and Employment. It has devoted itself to presentations with a scientific temper, which does not regard all science as western or all western knowledge as scientific, which is consecrated to the appreciation and exploration of the processes rather than products of science, which looks at the ethics, implications, future of science rather than at its push-button magical explosions of light and sound, and investigates its ultimate impact rather than its front end innovations. Its model is not the Epcot centre of USA, which seeks to build the Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow with virtual reality models. It believes that beyond the magic and glitter of such reality, there lies a sharper, a more sinister and tragic reality of doom and disaster, which may well overtake mankind unless it revises its ways.

    The Museum’s field programs hinge on the assumption that the true communities in the country and the world are being replaced by what have been called false communities or, false associations. The human community is trying to destroy its interdependence with other biological and non-biological communities in an eco-house in which there was, even 200 years earlier, a homeostatic balance maintained by a process of bio-geo-chemical cycling and recycling in nature. By destroying this balance through his own thoughtless actions, the human being has accelerated the rate of extinction of all such communities to 40 thousand times more than the background rate of such extinction in the entire biological history of the earth plant. The Museum of Mankind, therefore, tries in humble ways to point out and combat the slow relentless advance of this destruction. It is trying to point out that the Museum need not develop as a fossil park, but develop and publicize the lesson that man may find himself in such a park, unless he is careful. It visualizes its role as that of Noah’s ark, in which the best and the finest in human civilization and non-human nature can find its place in close congregation and association. The museum is a celebration of the truth that identity and difference are the obverse and reverse of the same coin, that ‘each portion of matter is conceivable as a garden full of plants, as a pond full of fishes. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of the humours, is also such a garden or such a pond’. (Leibnitz, in Monadology).

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