Jawaharlal Nehru on Museums

Speech at the Centenary celebration of the Madras Government Museum and the opening of the National Art Gallery, Madras, November 27, 1951.

I am grateful to you for inviting me to inaugurate this Centenary Celebration because I am deeply interested in museums in my own layman’s way. I am not an expert in anything but I have dabbled in a large number of activities. I am interested in many things and am even interested in experts, though from a distance. It is obvious that experts have their use but they often think that they function only in a world of experts, with the result that they somehow lose touch with the common man or the layman who is not an expert. I merely mention this, because I feel that experts exist in some upper sphere unconnected with humanity at large and very few persons even find their way there except, as I said, experts.

Now, museums I think are very necessary from a variety of points of view and some of the most exhilarating times that I have spent have been in museums — not in this country but chiefly in Europe — and I have always been sorry that I could not spend more time there. What exactly a museum is and what purpose it serves are questions which can be answered in many ways. I suppose it is some kind of congealed history or a bit of the past locked up in your cabinets and placed so that you may have a glimpse of it. It is a place where you collect beautiful objects and it is good to have beautiful objects for people to look at. More and more people seem to lose all idea of what beauty is and to surround themselves with articles which certainly are not beautiful, whatever else they may be. It is quite extraordinary how people are losing any real appreciation of beauty. What is the reason? I am not talking of India only but of many other countries, too; whether it is symptomatic of the modern age or not, I do not know; but the fact remains that we are becoming more and more shoddy.

What is worse, however, is that we sometimes seem to take pride in this fact. Therefore, it is desirable to collect articles of beauty. Even in a matter like children’s toys, may I ask why they should be given horrible golliwogs as presents? I do not know. No doubt, children are interested in animals and they should have them. Why not have beautiful things and why not train them in the appreciation of beauty from their childhood instead of giving them toys which are caricatures of what they see? Such toys no doubt excite their curiosity but, at the same time, make them insensitive to beauty. Because of this tendency, which appears to me to be growing throughout the world, because of this lack of appreciation of any kind of beauty, it is desirable to collect articles of beauty from the past and the present so that we may at least have some standard to judge by and so that the people who come to the museums may see for a while articles of beauty, even though they may not generally see them in their daily lives.

There is another aspect of the museum which I called congealed history. Do people go there just to see odd things oddly displayed, just to see, as an oddity, something that existed five hundred or a thousand years ago or do they go to see something that might have significance for them even today? I do not know how history is taught because, at college, I hardly learnt history in the normal way. I read it myself and, therefore, my reading was not guided by experts at all. It was casual, though widespread, reading and I was fascinated by it. My fascination for history was not in reading about odd events that happened in the past but rather in its relation to the things that led up to the present. Only then did it become alive to me. Otherwise it would have been an odd thing unconnected with my life or the world. It must somehow be connected in a series — something of the past leading to something else and that something else leading to the present. Then alone can history live for us.

Let us apply that to the museum. A museum which is really meant to interest and educate must be something which connects its objects with the things the visitors are used to seeing in their lives and in their environments. It should not be just a symbol of the distant, unconnected past. I do not know how far our experts think on these lines and prepare their museums on these lines. It is not the normal antiquarian’s view of things. An antiquarian is necessary, of course, to collect these antiquities but an antiquarian who himself becomes an antique piece is not much good. He must have some relation to the modern world. Then only can we make antiquity a living reality in terms of the modern world.

Forgive me for these personal reflections. It seems to me incorrect for us to treat any period of the past as something cut off from subsequent periods or from the present and if I look at it that way it does not interest me much. If there is the slightest connection between that and my present-day thoughts and activities it is a blessing and a matter of interest to me. I am giving these rather personal reactions, because I think it might interest some of you, gentlemen, especially those connected with museums. If I may say so with all humility, the greatest danger in the world is that people, in their zeal to specialize, lose all perspective. They become specialists at a particular job and very fine specialists at that but they lose the larger view of things and, therefore, perhaps they may be said to be only specialists and nothing more. Some of you may know these lines from Wordsworth:
A primrose by a river’s brim,
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more.
They bring to mind the botanist who studies the Latin names of flowers but loses all sense of the beauty of flowers. In other words, we become experts in something but lack wisdom in everything else. In our world, which is so learned in so many subjects, there is very little wisdom. Perhaps, that is because we all know something about a very little part of life and very little about the larger scheme of things.

Now, coming back to the museum, it is a collection of all kinds of things of beauty or things of utility from the past and present and should convey to us some idea of the larger scheme of life. It should ultimately lead to or at least help in an understanding of the present scheme of things. I like the museums of antiquity but there is another type of museum which perhaps the antiquarians consider to be of a lower species. That is the type which may be represented by, let us say, Deutsches Museum of Munich and some other museums in Paris and London, where one can see modem life, modern activity, the growth of science from the prescientific period. Such museums are fascinating and contain more education than years of courses in college or university. They also represent something I should like to see grow as part of general education and school or college education.

Lastly, the whole point of museums, whether they be museums of antiquity or museums of modern life, is that larger and larger numbers of people should visit them and learn from them. They should not be confined to the visiting Directors of Museums from other countries. More and more people should come and learn and, in fact, facilities for learning should be provided. That is to say, some arrangement should be made for lectures to be given to ordinary folk who come there and for guides to explain to them what these things are and arouse their interest in them, especially school children and college boys and girls. That is the main purpose of museums.

I would not very much mind if no adult came to the museums, because his mind is made up and is not always childhood and youth, it is essential that people should come to museums and learn. Their minds will be affected by the objects which they see there. I should like this aspect of education through the museums to be developed, not by appeals to the public but by encouraging and inviting people to come, inviting not only the people who would normally come but also those who would not otherwise come, persuading them to bring their children and explaining things to them so that they may widen their vision and feel that the world is a bigger thing than they normally believed it to be. As I grow old, I tend to philosophize and dole out advice to others. But I am happy to be here to participate in the Centenary Celebration of the oldest of India’s museums. I hope it will flourish and expand and, if I may say so, expand in the direction that I have indicated.

Image Courtesy: Reuters
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