If the Indian Museum in Kolkata has a problem, it’s perhaps a problem of having a dual personality – a duality implied by its name. Is it a museum about India, and about Indian culture in particular, which exists to satisfy foreigners like myself? Foreigners who arrive expecting it to be packed full of Indian antiquities? Or is it a museum that caters for Indian people, the local public, and meets the public’s general expectations about museums, i.e. that they have lots of stuffed animals and skeletons and cool things from ancient Egypt?
The Indian Museum at least has the space and the exhibits to meet both sets of expectations. Contained in a huge white building with a courtyard and lawn and with grand columns striding along the edges of a ground-floor terrace and first-floor balcony, it’s the biggest museum in India and at the last count a decade ago it was reckoned to house over 100,000 items. Its collection is the result of two centuries of acquisition – the museum was founded in 1814 and has inhabited this particular building since the 1870s.
For the Indian-culture-hungry tourist, there are a multitude of attractions: ranging from the massive, such as a 23-foot-high gateway and some nine-foot-high railings made of carved red-sandstone ‘pillars, cross-bars and running coping stones’, which constitute the remains of a Buddhist stupa discovered in Madhya Pradesh; to the small, but exquisite, such as a model of a carriage with a driver, passenger and four horses that’s been carved from ivory and supposedly represents ‘the exposition of the Gita at Kurukshetra’, i.e. when Krishna counselled Prince Arjuna on how to fulfill his duty as a warrior and establish Dharma.
However, the artifact that impressed me most of all was this charming ‘jade tree’.
With regard to more conventionally museum-y things, there are galleries devoted to India’s flora and fauna. The zoological galleries have so many skeletons and skulls on display that they’re veritable boneyards. The creatures of the prehistoric past are also given attention. At one point, for instance, I stumbled across the tank-like carcass of a glyptodon. The glyptodon was a monstrous type of armadillo that trundled around North and South America until about 10,000 years ago, when homo-sapiens – who obviously haven’t learnt anything in the period since – hunted it into non-existence. It’s definitely my favourite extinct giant mammal.
I was impressed to find that the Indian Museum also has a gallery dedicated to evolution. With religious nutcase-ism on the rise on so many parts of the world, including in North America, I’ll bet many museums nowadays would think twice about having a room that loudly extolls the theories of Charles Darwin and such similar ‘controversialists’ (or as they’re sometimes known, ‘scientists’). The Evolution Gallery is full of lovely diagrams and models charting the evermore-intricate progress of life on earth, with its centrepiece being a huge depiction of a strand of DNA that rather resembles an avant-garde corkscrew.
There’s even a little Egyptology section, its entrance guarded by an impressive-looking sphinx. But apart from the sphinx, a replica head of Queen Nefertiti and a mummified hand, there wasn’t anything there that lodged in my memory.
Incidentally, standing at the top of the stairs on the first floor is a statue of Queen Victoria. It bears a presumptive and imperious inscription: “This statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was presented to the Indian people by Mahatab Chund Bahadur, Maharaja Dhiraj of Burdwan, in commemoration of Her Majesty’s gracious assumption of the imperial title on January 1st 1877.” Yes, I imagine the Indian people felt enormous gratitude to Queen Victoria for doing them the favour of agreeing to be their empress. It has to be said, though, that a lot of modern-day Indian museum-goers seemed happy enough to pose in front of the old girl’s statue for photos.