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Colonial Museums in India

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R P Fernando
Written by R P Fernando

In this article on the dozens of museums founded by the British in India from the late eighteenth century onwards, Rohan Fernando provides a very different perspective on current cultural debates. Far from looting India, the British established the institutions and archaeological collections that ensured the preservation of Indian culture in India.

The public debate here has been dominated in recent years by the fate of colonial artefacts in UK museums. There has been little mention of the British-founded museums throughout the Empire. Important colonial artefacts are to be found in some UK museums, but they also abound in the museums the British established elsewhere.

In India, in addition to discovering historic sites, as described by Zareer Masani, the British established about a hundred museums. These acted as a focus of research and enabled the Indian people and British residents to better appreciate India’s culture and heritage. The genesis of the museum movement in India can be traced to the founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones in 1784. In 1796 the society founded a small museum to house curiosities collected by members in Calcutta. This moved to bigger premises in 1814 and finally to its present imposing site in 1875.

In 1843, at the request of the Madras Literary Society, the East India Company agreed to establish a Central Museum in Madras, which was opened in 1851. The museums at Lucknow and Nagpur were established in 1863 and the one at Lahore the following year. The celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 ushered in a new era of museum building, with new museums in Jaipur, Udaipur, Rajkor, Vijayawada and elsewhere. But the greatest impetus for museum-building was the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon, whose keen interest was matched by the enthusiasm of Sir John Marshall, the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. The museums at Ajmer, Baripada, Chamba, Jodhpur, Gwalior, Bijapur, Khajuraho, and Dacca were established within a space of ten years from 1903, following keen interest shown by the Survey. The museums at Malda, Bijapur, Dhar, Peshwar, Pagan, Mandalay and at the Taj Mahal were established at the insistence of Lord Curzon.

In the early years the museum collections were mainly geological and zoological. However, after the formation of the Archaeological Survey, the place of archaeological items became more prominent. Through the indefatigable efforts of General Cunningham, the museums came to possess the rich archaeological collections on which they pride themselves today. Cunningham presented a large collection of Gupta-period Buddhist images from Sarnath, which now adorn the sculpture gallery of the Indian Museum at Calcutta. He also presented several Gandhara Buddhist sculptures and the magnificent Bharut rail and gateway, which are some of the most valuable treasures in the museum. Similarly, Colonel Colin Mackenzie saved what he could from the Amaravati Stupa, which he discovered in 1797, and portions of the rail and carvings feature among the collection of the Madras Museum.

Some of the major Buddhist sites have their own museum. The Sanchi museum was built in 1919 and owes its inception to Sir John Marshall. It contains all the antiquities recovered by him at the site and displays all the phases of central Indian history from the time of Ashoka till 1200 AD. The Nalanda Museum was opened in 1917 and contains all the antiquities that could not be preserved in situ. The founding of the Sarnath Museum was also on the initiative of Marshall, who conducted excavations at the site for two seasons. The building was designed by James Ransome and the plan is based on that of an ancient Buddhist monastery (of which Sarnath has yielded many examples), the small cells being replaced by the large halls to house the exhibits. Standing in a well-planned garden and constructed from Chunar stone, the building itself is worthy of both its setting and the treasures it enshrines. These antiquities represent different phases of Indian art spanning some fourteen centuries. These include Mauryan, Sunga, Andhra, Kushana and early Gupta sculptures, including the Ashokan Lion Capital, which is the national emblem of India.

Two of the museums that were opened in the 20th century were the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay and the National Museum in Delhi. The first was established to mark the tour of India by the Prince of Wales, later George V, in 1905, and the foundation stone was laid by him during his visit. It housed several collections, including those of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey: the latter covering the Bombay Presidency, Sind and adjacent States. The first object in its collection was a plaster-cast head of the Buddha sculpted and donated by John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard Kipling). The Prince of Wales Museum was opened in 1922 and the delightful film below was produced as part of its Centenary Celebrations in 2022:

A proposal for a National Museum in Delhi was suggested as early as 1912. In 1936 it formed an item in a 5-year plan for the development of Delhi. A detailed scheme was presented by a committee headed by Sir Maurice Gwyer in 1946 and accepted by the government. The museum was opened formally in 1949. Given Britain’s exemplary record in founding museums in India, it is entirely fitting that one of the last bequests of the Raj to the Indian people was a National Museum in Delhi.

The colonial authorities transformed our understanding of India’s cultural heritage by conducting archaeological surveys, founding learned societies and establishing so many museums. Many of the most important artefacts discovered by the surveys were donated to these museums. These achievements deserve wider recognition.

About the author

R P Fernando

R P Fernando

The author was born in Sri Lanka and is a scientist with a first degree and doctorate from Cambridge. Extensive correspondence and some articles of his have been published in the national press in the UK and in Sri Lanka. He has published Selected Writings – W A de Silva (2009) and Buddhist Heritage in India and Sri Lanka – Rediscovery and Restoration (2017).