Home Museum institution memory as sentinel | MG Radhakrishnan

memory as sentinel | MG Radhakrishnan


“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.

George Santayana | Photo: Samuel Johnson Woolf, Time magazine

These famous words from Spanish philosopher George Santayana greet visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the complex of 40 Nazi concentration camps in Poland that was the site of the most brutal atrocities. This complex of human cruelty is now the largest visited memorial museum in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing the name Santayana here, the first thoughts that came to this writer’s mind were G Aravindan and his all-time classic -Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum- where I first came across the philosopher’s name at the late 1960s.

G. Aravindan
G Aravindan | Photo: Mathrubhumi archives

For most of us, museums are tourist destinations or centers of academic interest for researchers or intellectuals. They are hardly considered political institutions. But there have been many studies of museology in recent times that elucidate the intense political and social significance inherent in museums and how they shape collective values ​​and social understandings. Not only in museums devoted to political subjects but also to art or natural history. Museums are often built with malicious intent, benign or neutral, deliberately or not. Many had ulterior motives to suppress the truth, create alternate facts, privilege narratives, and fabricate the story according to the motivations of the powers of the day. As history is meant to be written by the victors, museums often represent the dominant narratives of the time. But those who survive time are the ones built to hold onto memories of the past and remind society to never repeat the mistakes of the past. In both cases, museums have been places of contestation related to identity, ideology, representation, legitimacy or hegemony and they carry the intersection of politics, culture and of technology.

“Museums and the artefacts they contain are spaces for transitive, entangled and often contested realities. In addition to marking social changes, the objects in our collections can be seen as playing an active role in the evolution of social relations, explains Anita Herle, eminent museologist at the University of Cambridge. Even a recent t-shirt campaign in the United States said “museums are not neutral.”

With the exception of a recent study in the weekly Mathrubhumi by artist / curator Riyas Komu and critic CS Venkiteswaran, few have studied museum politics in Kerala. We have had museums in Kerala since the 19th century, the most important of which is the Napier Museum built in Thiruvananthapuram in 1880 by Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma.

Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma
Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma | Photo: Mathrubhumi archives

The museum was built in the Indo-Saracen style by Robert Chrisholm, the Madras government consultant architect, and is named after Francis Napier, Governor of Madras and Scottish polyglot. Recently, many new museums have sprung up, including a chain linked to the Muziris Heritage project.

I wonder what happened to the brilliant idea put forward by Thomas Isaac when he was Minister of Finance to have a series of museums on the fascinating history of Alappuzha.

It was supposed to celebrate the unique elements of Alappuzha – its ancient maritime trade, agricultural practices below sea level, the first factories (coir) and unions of Kerala, peasant movements, uprisings like Punnapra Vayalar, etc.

Many unique pages of suffering and resistance in Kerala history could be immortalized in modern museums to gain the attention of the world. Imagine museums dedicated to Kerala’s ancient maritime trade, Christian, Muslim and Jewish history, extreme caste discrimination in Kerala, and slavery, as fully documented recently by academics like Sanal Mohan or Vinil Paul, the mathematical tradition of Kerala developed by George Joseph Junior, its communist history etc.

One of the biggest attractions of Western countries is the series of museums devoted to various subjects of the past and present. According to a study, the 7,000 museums in the United States attract more people than sports or movies. The various Holocaust museums set up in many Western countries after WWII have functioned as grim reminders of the darkest chapter of the 20th century and emphasize the need to preserve memories so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past. . Attempts by interest groups to erase or distort public memories or to dismiss them as false are commonplace today in many societies, which are even gradually internalized by the population.

Napier Museum
Napier Museum | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Shared memory has always been short, and communities without plans to store it are on a slippery slope towards autocracy. All the more so when there is the growing tribe of detractors who deny even recent historical facts like anti-national fabrication or conspiracy. “Holocaust denial” is a powerful anti-Semitic movement in many European countries. He constantly portrays the Nazi genocide as a myth that prompted the launch of commemoration projects.

The long history of exploitation and exclusion of the Dalits, which constitutes the biggest embarrassment of the Hindutva project, risks coming up against such attempts sooner or later. A campaign that “Babri Masjid has never been demolished” is underway with the acquittal of all defendants in this case by a special IWC tribunal in 2020.

A recent visit to Amritsar sparked my thoughts on the museum. Opposites continually inhabited Amritsar. Secularism and spiritualism. Syncretism and sectarianism. Pure youthful chauvinism was on display in Atari-Wagah, where the aggressive drama of soldiers pushed by partisans on both sides of the border reminded me of Kathakali’s actions. In contrast, the solemn, mature and evocative atmosphere of the Amritsar Partition Museum. The Yadgar-e-Taqseem (Memoirs of the Score) was established in 2017 through the collaborative efforts of the government of the Punjab and Kishwar Desai, chairman of the Arts & Heritage Trust of the United Kingdom, with the support of international supporters . It tells countless stories of pain, agony and cruelty over the Indian partition, which saw the world’s largest refugee migration in history. Housed in the 150-year-old Town Hall, the multimedia museum reveals the score record in multiple ways. On display are memories of survivors, photographs of violence, extracts from trains overflowing with refugees on both sides, diaries, household utensils transported or abandoned by fleeing refugees, newspaper extracts, personal letters, documents. officials, etc.

Partition Museum in Amritsar
A visitor looks at an art installation, symbolizing the Partition of India and Pakistan at the Partition Museum in Amritsar | Photo: PTI

The museum, located next to the Golden Temple, is truly global in its standards and noble in the philosophy it espouses. When sectarian enmity becomes the new normal and common sense, the museum carries hope and brotherhood in the air even as it chronicles the violent days of hostility to remind us that these events should never be repeated. It is comparable to the great museums on wars, revolutions, the holocaust, etc., located in many European countries.

However, even this truly international institution has not been exempt from a typical and meaningless Indian convention – the ban on photography. The poor young Sikhs in charge continued like a broken record, mana hai photos, to dozens of visitors all armed with their camera phones. And what most of them wanted was a selfie with a historical relic, the meaning of which they hardly cared. Fortunately, another Indian convention – prohibited shoes – was not applied. I remembered the hundreds of photos we took a few years ago and extended the story to those horrific memories kept at the Holocaust Museum in Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland.