The Woes of Victoria Memorial and the Indian Museum

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    The Victoria Memorial Hall is the most iconic building in Kolkata city. It also holds the distinction of having the highest footfalls among all the museums in India. Just across the road is the ‘Indian Museum’, the oldest museum in India and the nineth oldest in the world. But despite their fame and prestige, the state of affairs in these two government run museums is rather shocking, as can be seen from the CAG report released in August 2022.

    While the report is equally scathing in its findings that the ASI has failed to implement most of the recommendations from the previous audit of 2013 in the intervening decade, it pays special emphasis to the museums that are under the ASI. Two of the most prominent among these museums are located in Kolkata – The Indian Museum and the Victoria Memorial Hall.

    According to the report, the number of vacancies in the Victoria Memorial had actually increased in the last 10 years, from 30.1% to 53.7%. The report found some posts had actually been vacant for 32 years! Victoria Memorial had failed to fully document all artefacts in its possession, and had failed to create soft copies of its accession register which records the antiquities in its collection. The CAG also found that while a physical verification of antiquities in the collection had been carried out, Victoria Memorial had not prepared any report on the verification and had tagged less than 20% of its artefacts with RFID.

    But beyond the numbers, there are issues with the Victoria Memorial that will be apparent even to keen-eyed visitors. Take, for instance, the Nirbhik Subhas exhibit which was put up in 2021 to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. While the press releases mentioned that there would be several “rare exhibits” at the display, the number of actual objects on display is extremely low.

    A former consultant of the Victoria Memorial spoke to the author on conditions of anonymity. He says that the Victoria Memorial continues to have enormous footfalls, often exceeding 2000 a day even on weekdays. However, the ASI seems to be satisfied with just the number of people visiting and not the quality of the engagement. There are no parameters to measure how long visitors spend inside the museum, how thrilled or excited they are about the exhibits, or even any means of judging what the visitors would want to see more of.

    The same consultant also points to a large number of posts being filled by contractual workers rather than permanent employees, to avoid the pension costs.

    The CAG report also points to another problem with the Victoria Memorial – the fact that only 2.44% of objects in its possession are ever displayed. Responding to the original audit report, VMH authorities had clarified that they made efforts to rotate the artefacts on display, nevertheless, the fact remains that there are a surprising number of artefacts in the VMH collection that do not seem to have been displayed in decades. Sketches by Emily Eden, sister of the Governor General, Lord Auckland, paintings by famous uncle-nephew duo of Thomas and William Daniell and even paintings by Johann Zoffany, whose copy of the Last Supper hangs in the St. John’s Church in Kolkata are all held by the VMH, but rarely, if ever, seen. The CAG report points to more than 5000 paintings loaned to the Victoria Memorial by the Rabindra Bharati Society in 2011 of which VMH managed to exhibit only 9! To be sure, the VMH does have space constraints, but the CAG report also points out that several of the museum’s galleries had remained closed for almost 2 years for renovation or repair.

    The Indian Museum located on Chowringhee in Kolkata also comes in for a lot of flak in the CAG report. Like the VMH, Indian Museum (IM) had 58.9% seats vacant and not all the artefacts had been accessioned. The report further finds that due to different branches of the IM maintaining their own independent registers, instead of a single central one, the same object was often found to be showing in a number of different registers! The auditors also found instances of improper preservation, such as bright blue patchwork on an ancient stone relic, and a case of a red sandstone ‘Yakshi’ statue which had turned completely black!

    But what is perhaps most worrying is that the auditors found that modern firefighting equipment such as smoke detectors and sprinklers had not been installed in the storerooms of either the VMH or the IM. Closely packed objects in a museum store, without sprinkler systems is a disaster waiting to happen.

    Research Scholar Sarbajit Mitra had visited the Indian Museum in September of 2022. He says, “everything looks very shabby and uncared for. I found sculptures with drops of paint on them, which means the rooms had been painted without the sculptures being covered. Of all the galleries in the museum only two relatively small ones had air conditioning. In a gallery of paintings I found pigeons flying around in the rafters, which should horrify any curator”. But what Mitra found especially saddening was the dated nature of the whole museum. “It is as if the museum itself has become a museum – to show people what museums used to be like a century ago. No modern museum plans displays in this way anymore”. Mitra also points to The National Museum in Delhi, which like the IM is also under the ministry of culture, but looks far better and much more modern.

    The CAG reports points not just to a lack of modern firefighting equipment, but also to the fact that not enough metal detectors and baggage scanners had been installed, which leaves gaps in the security of both institutions. It should also be pointed out that modern audio guide devices, which are found in multiple museums across India, have not yet debuted in Kolkata. These would provide a much more immersive and engaging experience for visitors.

    Archaeologist Dr. Tathagata Neogi, founder of Immersive Tours, who has visited museums around India and the world, says “I am not worried about the number of objects on display. Only 2 or 3 percent of objects being displayed is currently the norm around the world. As per the trends in the curatorial discipline, the number of objects is less important than the story they tell. That is one place where museums in India are lacking – they seem to have a lot of stuff to show, but those things are not put together in a way that creates a cohesive narrative”. But what did worry Neogi was the incomplete accession registers and RFID tags. “Without a complete accession register, a Museum won’t even know what it has. RFID tags make both cataloguing and theft detection and prevention easy. The fact that these things have not been completed is worrying”.

    What also remains perplexing are the staggering number of vacant posts. The CAG report states that both the Indian Museum and the Victoria Memorial were underutilizing the budgets allocated to them. In case of the VMH, more than 10 crores a year remained unutilized, so clearly a lack of funds is not the issue. With both Calcutta University and Vishwa Bharati University in West Bengal having Archaeology Departments, clearly a lack of an available talent pool is not an issue either. So what would explain posts remaining vacant for as long as 25 years? Former insiders point to rampant unionisation being one of the probable factors for museums choosing to keep permanent staff numbers low and making do with contractual consultants instead.

    Of all the museums in India, the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata has the highest footfall and biggest revenue from ticket sales. The Indian Museum of Kolkata is the ninth oldest museum in the world and the oldest and largest in India. While both these institutions regularly make it to the to-do list of visitors to the city, the CAG report clearly shows, that all is not well.

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