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'The National Museum is an archive of time, it is inhuman to erase its history': artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari

As president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, Bose Krishnamachari knows a few things about bringing historical architectural sites to life. He presents some arguments against demolishing The National Museum in Delhi.

May 23, 2021 / 07:47 AM IST
Bose Krishnamachari, artist and president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, at the 'Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family)' exhibition in Alappuzha. Curated by him, the show features 267 Keralite artists from around the world.

Bose Krishnamachari, artist and president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, at the 'Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family)' exhibition in Alappuzha. Curated by him, the show features 267 Keralite artists from around the world.

Renowned artist and Kochi Biennale Foundation President Bose Krishnamachari has shown his works and curated major exhibitions and biennales in some of the most important museums around the world.

In a wide-ranging conversation about the Central Vista project in New Delhi that involves demolition and relocation of several important national institutions, Krishnamachari talks about the philosophy of museums, conservation architecture, and memories of public spaces.

Excerpts from an interview:

What impact do you think the Central Vista project will have on a public institution like the National Museum, since it would move into spaces that were not made for exhibiting objects or artifacts?

When you use words like public, any such projects should be transparent. The National Museum Delhi is one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. It has an incredible collection of artifacts from India and other parts of the world. The National Museum is an archive of time. The very decision to raze down and 'relocate' important cultural institutions, including the National Museum, is reflective of the utter disregard and ignorance of the government regarding the role of a museum and its relationship with the people. It is inhuman to erase its history. I think there is no need to relocate well-maintained architectural spaces and institutions like the National Museum and others within Lutyens Delhi.

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What could have been done to such a building, if we really wanted to expand architectural spaces, is we should have called for an open competition from architects for expanding the present space. We have important examples like the Dresden Military History Museum in Germany that suffered extensive damage during the Second World War. It was renovated by the great German architect Daniel Libeskind after an architectural competition. Libeskind also designed the expansion of the famous Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We should have thought about extension of architecture within the National Museum premises - without demolishing and erasing its visual and material history - through a juxtaposition of the present and the new.

Are there any major examples in history of complete demolition and relocation of museums in the world?

In my knowledge, there are no cases like this. Two years ago, the Notre Dame church burned down in Paris. They will be remaking it. When it comes to architecture and urban planning, we need to think about our cultural heritage. There are many green spaces vanishing in Delhi, which is known for its pollution. We should create more green spaces. In art and architecture, we call it breathing spaces, which we are going to lose. The important philosophy today is conservation architecture. Early this century, the 400-year-old Palazzo Grassi in Venice was remodelled into a contemporary art museum by one of the greatest living architects, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, Denmark, created new spaces within its old building, even underground. The Museum of Modern Art in New York created great architectural spaces in a recent expansion.

How important are major landmark public spaces and cultural institutions to the history and conscience of a modern nation?

When I was travelling for exhibitions in Spain, the tour guides would always talk about the visual evidence of history in their cities like Barcelona and Madrid. There were three names that always came up - Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso (both in Barcelona) and Salvador Dali (Madrid).

Artists, designers and architects play the most important role in the history and memory of a city. In 1997, Bilbao, also in Spain, envisioned the Guggenheim Museum (designed by the famous Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry) that created a new face of the city. Today, the museum generates hundreds of millions of euros for the city. That is called the Bilbao effect; one of the greatest economic models of art and culture.

Another great example of public space is the Chicago Millennium Park, which commissioned three art and design projects in the new millennium, including the iconic Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, which was voted one of the most photographed public art works in the world.

Lutyens Delhi is architecturally one of the most interesting spaces in the world. We should be creating more public spaces for people to sit, walk and cycle around its architectural landmarks, not crowded blocks that are contradictory to the philosophy of green building.

The National Museum holds over 200,000 objects and artifacts, many of which are several millennia old and vulnerable to movement and weather. Are there any serious threats to their safety in a relocation involving several months or years of storage?

Climate-control is integral to a museum. In India, we don't have many climate-controlled spaces in contrast to air-conditioned ones. We need to understand the harsh weather conditions of a city like Delhi. Massive amounts of money need to be invested to keep historically important artifacts safe for a long time during a relocation. These are very fragile manuscripts, textiles, objects - each and every one needs to be packed and conserved. That also requires diligent registrars and curatorial work. It is not like taking and dumping them in a godown. The National Museum has incredible collections of national and international importance. The public must have seen only 20-30 per cent of the entire museum collection.

What are the ways to protect cultural institutions like the National Museum?

I suggest, in our city corporations and municipalities, we should appoint or invite dedicated aesthetic advisers to the policy makers, mayors and commissioners. Important practitioners and academics who understand the values of heritage, political and cultural history and aesthetics of a city or town, its architecture. Heritage, culture and creativity bring respect and wealth. There is so much economy busting through a city when you think about culture. It is important to have culturally conscious, sensitive aesthetic urban planning in every city and town. We need to reimagine this in our country, not just in New Delhi. How do we respect our existing heritage is the starting point. Architecture is the living memory of our times, we must embrace it and protect. There is an incredible wealth of memory and history in the National Museum. We can't demolish, deface such institutional sites.
Faizal Khan

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