A handful of dust (Madras)

by Natalie Bennett

Most museums have signs telling visitors to keep their hands off the exhibits. The Government Museum in Madras takes another approach. It warns staff to keep their hands off the visitors.

And at cricket pitch intervals along each wall, signs say “Please do not pay tips to staff. In case of harassment please report to the following officials…” Yet, like children tempted by chocolate, the staff seem unable to resist. I was given scant chance to enjoy the wonder of this fine collection, the remains of the Buddhist Amaravati stupa.

First, the creaking old attendant told me what it was. Since I’d already read the sign above the door, I didn’t think this warranted any greasing of the palm he presented. And no, I wasn’t planning on changing any money, and no, I didn’t have any American coins, and if I had, I certainly wouldn’t give him any.

Thus rebuffed, he followed me around the room, muttering — luckily in Tamil, so the no doubt horrible curses were incomprehensible to me. If I’d seen him cleaning any of the exhibits, however, I would have been pleased to hand over a healthy tip, for the details of most sculptures are obscured by a thick layer of dust.

And from the contents and nature of the labels and the style of the exhibition, nothing has changed here in 100 years. India has many great museums, but almost without exception they are as much fossils as the hundreds of millennia-old, giant ‘stone trees’ they inevitably harbour. Scarcely a sign or label appears to have been touched since the Brits left, producing some hilarious anachronisms: In the Central Museum In Jaipur, Rajasthan. little models have labels like “Barber’s wife tending native woman’s hair”. I wonder what the locals think of that? Or signs proclaim colonial-era truths like “A true Rajput puts his life at stake If his womenfolk are molested”. Throughout the country’s museums the ‘natives’ can read about Aryan characteristics, the Aryan invasion, and simplistic tales long debunked by historical research.

It’s easy to laugh at these oddities, yet It’s really no laughing matter. For India is a country where the multitudes lack education and the authorities a hunger to provide It. Visiting museums is not an elite activity, but one which every sector of society enjoys. Entry fees are generally the equivalent of only one or two baht, and many poor, even ragged, families parade every museum.

Institutions of modern, user-friendly design, with up-to-date information, could provide valuable informal education. In their current form, they are not only Ineffective, but harmful. Throughout India, newspapers daily report government plans for bureaucratic reform, restructuring, or, In the latest buzz-word, re- engineering. But one feels the relics wilt need to be blown out of the political system before we see much of that.

This article first appear in Bangkok Metro in 1997


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