Contested Histories : How to say the Unspeakable at Museums

    How does our experience and memory of the past affect our choices and beliefs in the present?  How do museums, the keepers of our past – shape our future?

    ICOM’s 2017 International Museum day theme (Museums and Contested Histories) sought responses to this very question, encouraging museums to play an active role in peacefully addressing traumatic histories through mediation and multiple points of view. In doing so, the myth of museums being static as ‘storehouses of culture’ transformed into museums being active spaces for dialogue. According to ICOM, “…by focusing on the role of museums as hubs for promoting peaceful relationships, the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation”

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    Ivory Pyx depicting the triumph of Dionysos in India Byzantine found in Rome made mid 500s

    So how can Museums offer this space for establishing peaceful relationships? By stating facts and allowing visitors to make their own decisions is definitely one step.

    Personally for me, I have crossed the Phulkaris in the Museum at Chandigarh on almost every visit. I saw them as objects with stories, as objects that can be used for my sessions with schools, as objects that can create dialogue between grandparents and children – but never did I see Phulkari as creating a dialogue between two nations on their shared culture. It’s the same for Kantha of Bengal and Bangladesh. These objects at Museums offer multiple points of view and are so important in addressing the painful past of the Partition. These are objects that elucidate memories of a happy past – where togetherness, culture, creativity didn’t know religious boundaries. And so, while we go about unearthing Roman coins and acknowledging India’s genial trade relations with the world, somewhere we miss doing so with our neighbouring country.

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    Pre-Partition Phulkaris at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    In light of this, the opening of the Partition Museum scheduled for August seems to be an important step. According to Mallika Ahluwalia, CEO of the Museum:

    “The Partition Museum is being set up as a people’s museum to remember what millions went through in an event that has been buried in our collective memory, but not erased from our collective psyche. An event that continues to shape us as individuals, as families, communities and a nation- but one that has not been spoken about.”

    It is this sentiment that makes it a challenge for the curators at the Museum. Objects at the museum need to be carefully selected and curated, for they are symbols of our cultural and political heritage; and yet they need to inspire conversation.


    History is a vital tool for defining a given people’s identity, and each of us defines ourselves through important and fundamental historic events (even on Facebook now!).  These histories, which are often little known or misunderstood, resonate universally, as they concern and affect us all. Museum collections offer reflections of memories and representations of history.


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    Arrival of Jewish Pilgrims at Cochin : 68 AD

    India is a secular country, even though with each passing day it is trying to establish itself as a Hindu nation; interestingly in India’s Museums you’d see so many pieces that tell a story about its past connections with other cultures. More often than not, we tend to overlook these galleries.

    Did you know that it is believed that Jews settled in India during the reign of King Solomon?  Traders from Judea arrived in Cochin as far back as 562 BCE (just a little after the establishment of Buddhism).

    When Marco Polo traveled through India in the year 1293, he recorded a surprising encounter in his diaries about meeting Jews there who had by then, developed a thriving community on India’s southwestern coast. Yet, today the significance of understanding Jewish culture, and religion is lost to our school-going children.

    India’s colonial past too, could be invoked by objects at Museums to discuss present-day and relevant subjects. They can invite dialogue about our constitution, law, similarities, continued trade relations, education, design, craft and so many other cross-linkages between India and Britain today.

    Museums have the opportunity to share knowledge of the past and give it meaning to help us understand the world today. Museums therefore “are tools for teaching universal values and help create a common destiny among different people, religions, communities, etc.” (ICOM).


    An open world begins with an open mind. Have a look at this video below on how some people participated in a social experiment and through their DNA understood how they have a mixed heritage.

    Imagine, if Museums just through their narratives and collections could do this to visitors!


    As someone rightly points out in the video, if people started realising that there’s no such thing as a ‘pure race’ in the world, there might be space for peace and dialogue.

    Object histories (tracing where they’ve travelled from) can spark curiosity about cultures, places and beliefs. Today, more than ever it has become important to face our cultural pasts and take cognisance of a shared heritage; and so, the ICOM International Museum day theme couldn’t have had better timing.

    International Museum Day 2017

    This year, while globally there were such interesting events, talks, workshops, I was especially excited by the ones in India.

    Here’s a compilation of all that happened in the country, the most inspiring ones etc:

    On my end, here’s what I wrote for Museum Day for the Architectural Digest : A review of the Phulkari exhibition by Philadelphia Museum of Art .

    In keeping with the theme of 2017, “Contested Histories : Saying the unspeakable at Museums”, Fatima Zahra Hassan and I have decided to do a #TwitterTour on India-Pakistan Museum collections.  While I’d be focusing on Punjab (Chandigarh Museum); she’d be taking us through the Lahore Museum collections.

    To join in, follow us here:

    The tour starts at 7.00 pm IST on Saturday.

    Featured Image : Ongoing Exhibition on Imperial Threads, Qatar Museums

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