Colonial museums in India were imposing structures used to showcase European superiority and exoticise the colonial subjects. In contrast, the nationally funded museums in postcolonial India were predominantly invested in reclaiming the history of India from the colonial state and utilising it to shape their own visions of national identity. A recent crop of museums in contemporary India has tried to cause a rupture in such trends of museum making in India. These newer museums inhabit a different epistemological space than their predecessors. In this context, my paper explores the conceptual departure of these contemporary museums in India from the national and colonial museums. The paper examines the nature of the epistemological space in which these museums are located. However, the paper does not argue that this is the case with all contemporary museums; neither does it claim that certain types of museums are superior to others. Instead, it explores how certain museums have tried to transcend their colonial and postcolonial legacies.


In 1866, the governor of Bengal, George Campbell noted, “I was much struck by seeing men of most interesting and curious races carrying tilings down to the Punjab Exhibition two or three years ago; the men, who were not to be exhibited, seemed to me much more curious than the things they were taking to exhibit, and at the time I ventured to suggest that the men also might be exhibited, but it was then too late.” (Asiatic Society of Bengal 1867, 71). Campbell’s remarks on the possibility of colonised people acting as better exhibits than material objects capture the ethnographical gaze that informed the museums that were being set up across India under colonial rule. Historian Bernard Cohn argues that museums constituted an ‘investigative’ modality utilised by the colonial state to understand its colony. Museums of various kinds were established across India to define and classify the past and present of the colonised subjects (Cohn 2011, 9-10). Moreover, these museums also served as sites for representing science as Western and constructing the native forms of knowledge as superstition (Prakash 1992, 153-155). This further cemented the oppositional relationship between Western and South Asian forms of knowledge. In contrast, the national museums in postcolonial India served a different purpose. Grand in style like colonial museums, their imposing facades project a state-sanctioned vision of national identity. Their project includes constructing the Indian civilisation as antique and eternal (Singh 2002). This ideal of Indian civilisation comprised handpicked cultural forms most often produced by dominant groups across caste, class and gender.

In recent decades, there has been a rupture in the colonial and postcolonial legacies of museums in India. Certain museums have developed themselves into sites where an intimate dialogue can be fostered between the individual and the museum. These museums defy ideals constructed by colonial and postcolonial museums in several respects. My project discusses two such important shifts that the newer museums have ushered. First, the reformulation of the relationship between the individual and second, their redefinition of the very term “museum”. Centred on case studies of four museums, the project is based on qualitative interviews conducted with the individuals working in these museums in different capacities. My case studies include the Conflictorium and Mehnat Manzil, located in Ahmedabad, Gujarat; the Museum of Goa (MOG), located in Pilerne, Goa and the Living Waters Museum, a virtual museum.

“If the museum is empty, then when does it actually become alive?”: Museum, the Individual and the City

In 1911, the colonial state of India decided to shift its capital from Calcutta to Delhi. In this context, plans were in work to build several museums as a knowledge hub to symbolise the capital as the centre for colonial knowledge of India. While the plan never materialised due to more significant global events like the First World War, this incomplete dream was later realised by the postcolonial state. As historian Kavita Singh argues, the construction of the National Museum in Delhi did not merely represent the consolidation of national identity. It was also the completion of the old colonial design (Singh 2002, 190-191). It is evident from this that the link between the museum and the city is not novel. However, in present times this relationship has taken on newer meanings.

Nestling in Pathani Chali, Ahmedabad, a predominantly working-class neighbourhood, is a museum known as Mehnat Manzil: Museum of Work, dedicated to addressing the issues concerning the informal sector in India. It was opened in 2019. The museum’s humble structure differs starkly from the imposing structures of colonial and national museums.

Left The lane leading to Mehnat Manzil Right Entrance of Mehnat Manzil

On the entrance wall of the museum hangs the number ‘81’, which represents the percentage of Indians involved in the informal sector. However, given the economic dislocations caused by the recent COVID 19 pandemic Anuja Vora, an employee in charge of the museum’s networking and social media, mentions that the number could be as high as 92 percent (Vora 2022). The museum has been built through a collaboration between Saath Charitable Trust and Conflictorium. When asked about what functions museums should serve, Vora remarks that they should possess the ability to evoke emotions in its audience. She says, “… so, to me, a museum has always been a place that’s going to evoke some sort of emotion in you. You’re going to walk out learning something about the current history and the past history as well… This history with Mehnat Manzil is obviously of the past as well, of the present, reflects the current situation in India, as well. So, for me, a museum is a space where you can start a conversation where you walk out thinking that okay, I want to talk about these things with other people.” Vora’s reflections echo the shift in museums from being repositories of knowledge to spaces that chronicle the human experience and serve as a site for dialogue between the individual and the structure about issues that concern the city and the country.

The inclusive nature of the exhibits at Mehnat Manzil further illustrates how the museum interacts with the

The exhibit depicts pictures of the previous residents

individuals and the city. For instance, before the structure was converted into a museum, it was a house. The museum exhibits photos of the residents to respect their history and integrate it into the museum’s narrative. Thus, the museum visually establishes its relations with the residents. The residents could not afford to live in the house anymore, due to which they had moved out but they continue to live in the same neighbourhood. Since the museum’s inception, Vora mentions that they were always involved in a dialogue with the residents. The previous inhabitants participated in every step of setting up the museum. Additionally, they conducted conversations with people living in and around the neighbourhood. Vora notes that this process was essential since “it was extremely important to make them feel like they are part of this museum and this is a space that belongs to them… You want them to feel like it’s a part of their community as well. It took a while, but the kids now walk in every now and they call me Anushka didi (sister) but I don’t want to correct them because it’s fine.” (Vora 2022). Vora’s comments highlight the museum’s close relationship with the neighbourhood. In the case of Mehnat Manzil, the flow of information in the case of Mehnat Manzil is not in one direction, that is, from the museum to the neighbourhood and the audience. Instead, it establishes a dialectical relationship with the neighbourhood, which was a critical goal in the setting up and functioning of the museum. Through such engagement with the community, the museum accepts its spatial relations both with the neighbourhood and the city. Additionally, the participation of the neighbourhood people in setting up the museum ensures that while addressing the informal sector of India, the museum tells the story of its subjects with sensitivity without exoticising them or portraying them as backwards.

The Power of New

Similarly, the Conflictorium, the second museum in my study, has also formed an intricate and complex relationship with its neighbourhood. Housed in Gool Lodge in Ahmedabad’s Old City, the museum was founded in 2013 and foregrounded the idea of conflict. The building previously belonged to Ahmedabad’s first trained hairstylist, Bachuben Nagarwala. The museum honours her story through the exhibit titled ‘Power of the New.’ This exhibit pays ode to the layered history of the building and similar to the Mehnat Manzil, identifies itself as an integral part of the neighbourhood in which it resides. In our conversation, Avni Sethi, the owner and curator of the museum who has a background in design and visual arts, expresses her thoughts on the kind of relationship the museum has with the individual: “if

Memory Lab where one can add their experiences of conflict

the museum is empty, then when does it actually become alive? So, the Conflictorium, in my view, becomes alive when someone converses with it when someone participates … or changes something fundamentally by doing something with it. And therefore, without the audience or without the participant actually taking up some space, and taking up some agency to be able to modify and when I say the word modify, I’ll also say, you know, for example, if you have a jar, because the museum has memory jars and you leave an object in it, and you write it, you have changed.” (Sethi 2022). Sethi

Rohit Vemula’s suicide note

reformulates the individual’s relationship with the museum by referring to the audience as participants. The individual is given the power to have a dialogue with the museum rather than being a passive recipient. The museum is filled with confessions, apologies and so on, forcing the participants to reflect and have difficult conversations. One example is the exhibit of anti-caste activist Rohit Vemula’s suicide note. Thus, based on this relationship with the participants, the museum is conceptualised as a dynamic, impermanent entity. Ironically, as Sethi remarks, one thing that museums are expected to be is “certain” but the Conflictorium clearly operates on a different internal logic.

By incorporating the histories of the neighbourhood, Mehnat Manzil and the Conflictorium read as integral parts of their respective neighbourhood rather than distinct entities. The relationship they reflect with the city is different from national or colonial museums. Instead of fashioning themselves as repositories of knowledge, these museums function as microcosms to understand certain aspects of the city and the nation. In the case of Mehnat Manzil, it is the lived experiences of workers in the informal sector and in the case of Conflictorium, it is the experience of conflict on personal, social and institutional levels.

“The form is not important, but how the museum engages with people”: Reinterpreting the nomenclature

What differentiates a virtual museum from a website? When does it stop being a website and becomes a museum? Bhargav Padhiyar, research and design consultant at the Living Waters Museum, notes that during the initial stages of developing the museum, he began by attempting to define what a virtual museum was meant to be: “So based on some research, some other virtual museums, I realised, and I thought, you know, this’ll make sense, that the museum’s form is not important. It can be a building or a bus or just a shelf or a box or a website. The form is not important but how the museum engages with people. It collects stories, it curates stories, it communicates stories. If we are able to do these things on this platform, then we are a virtual museum.” (Padhiyar 2022). Dr. Sara Ahmed, the museum’s founder, echoes a similar opinion when she notes that museums cannot merely operate as websites. They must engage with society and organise public outreach programmes (Ahmed 2022). Ahmed and her colleagues have organised several heritage walks, talks at schools and collaborated with other museums. Living Waters Museum presents a case study on the shifting understanding of the term “museum” and the implications of these changes on the relationship between the digital and the physical space. Even though they are a virtual museum, they do not limit themselves to the digital space. While their curations are presented online, they emphasise community engagement through the several in-person activities they conduct.

The museum was founded in 2017 by Ahmed, who is formally trained in environmental sociology. The museum aims to build knowledge about the shared heritage around water and work towards a more sustainable way of engaging with water. The museum’s title highlights their conception of water as dynamic and alive offering rich possibilities for crafting narratives. According to Ahmed, water flows through culture, space, gender, religion and so on, making it a suitable entity to form a museum around (Ahmed 2022). The narratives of the museum are not connected through a linear chronology. Instead, the museum creates a sense of interconnectedness through narratives centred around water. These narratives are deeply personal since the stories are directly derived from communities that have lived through such experiences. The museum utilises water as a microcosm to tell various stories relating to experiences of other social identities such as caste, gender and so on. For instance, one of their curations titled ‘A Case for Transgender Inclusive WASH[1] Practices’ engages with themes of gender, sanitation and water. Another curation, ‘Mirgao Naadi’, has been curated in Hindi and sheds light on traditional water practices in Dhandhaniya, Jodhpur. The narrative uses Marwadi vocabulary and metaphors. Such a curational approach enables the museum to pursue stories from across the country centred around water to generate a more robust dialogue regarding regional histories. Ahmed and Padhiyar’s reflections point to certain larger questions such as: What exactly constitutes the museum? Is it a physical structure? Is it a set of ideas? Sethi offers her reflections on similar themes, “I think, across the world, the state is most interested in shaping is its citizens’ sense of history. How do you produce punctures in these kinds of historical narratives that are mounted at this scale? And sometimes I feel it’s only the very small museum, for the neighbourhood museum or the corner museum, that can actually do that. That the more and more histories are about big borders, is about sort of wars, is about antiquity, about glorifying pasts… I think Conflictorium is about very small things, it’s about very, very personal conflicts about it’s about what constitutes the large… What was a singular person from a specific community feeling?” (Sethi 2022). Sethi emphasises the role emotions and lived experiences play in the curations of Conflictorium. By showcasing the experience of the individuals, it makes the conscious decision to employ methods of micro-history, making the museum experience read as open-ended and subjective.

Moreover, emphasising the particulars and local contexts alters how the historical process is interpreted in these museums. Exhibits in the colonial and national museums were often curated with an end goal because the historical process was considered moving towards a pre-determined end. This is known as a teleological view of history. As visitors near the end of the colonial and national museums, they are expected to feel a sense of all exhibits collapsing into each other to realise an end goal. For instance, the end goal of the national museums was to construct a unified sense of Indian identity. In the National Museum of India, Delhi, the sculptures of the medieval period are predominantly from the northern and central parts of India. Despite this being a period of the emergence of distinctive regional styles, the museum’s ultimate goal is to produce a national identity rather than a regional one. Hence, it chooses to focus only on particular Indian regions rather than cater to all (Singh 2002, 184-185). An overt temporal direction remains central to this project to showcase the exhibits progressing towards a telos. The National Museum illustrates this through the usage of timelines and chronology. The exhibits are curated in an evolutionary sequence commencing from the Harrapan civilisation to the formation of the modern nation-state. This chronological sequence possesses gaps. For instance, a proper connection is yet to be established between the Harappan civilisation and subsequent cultures in South Asia. However, despite such gaps in historical analysis, these histories are incorporated into a single narrative about the ancient origins of modern India and Indian national identity. The temporal ordering of the exhibits constructs a sense of an objective narrative. Similarly, the exhibit known as ‘The Conflict Timeline’ makes the Conflictorium museum begin with a timeline. It provides a timeline of conflicts across India. Moving forward, most exhibits involve confessions, apologies and themes centred around empathy and forgiveness in relation to conflicts. This marks a conceptual shift in the museum wherein it begins to operate in the particulars. Thus, rather than being a space for constructing chronological narratives, the museum becomes a space for exploring personal anxieties both of the curator and the participant. Towards the end, the participant is left with questions and reflections rather than arriving at a telos pre-determined by the museum.

Often the museums mentioned in this paper house exhibits that are not intrinsically valuable. Unlike the exhibits of the national museums, the exhibits at the museums I study do not take on the burden of showcasing a sense of grandeur or pride. National museums house exhibits like Harappan seals that are not intrinsically valuable but derive


their significance from being a part of the nation’s teleological narrative. Museums discussed in this paper house exhibits that become significant due to the interpretive potential they carry. Their significance hinges upon the feelings they can stir up in the audience’s minds. MOG, a contemporary art museum founded in 2015 and located in the Pilerne Industrial Estate in Goa, perfectly illustrates this case. The museum’s founder,

Mussel Shells Ocean

Subodh Kerkar, left his practice as a physician and gave into his passion for art. The museum is rooted in the idea of making contemporary art more accessible and narrating various facets of Goan history. Rather than reading as an impersonal, objective history of Goa, it is filled with metaphors and anecdotes that tap into the collective experiences of Goans. Its exhibits include boats that Kerkar bought from Goan fisher folks. Kerkar mentions that he was fascinated by how the waves interacted with the boat’s surface (Kerkar 2022). By utilising these old boats as a medium for his art, Kerkar integrates the history of these boats into the museum’s narrative. Another installation includes chillies made from Rajasthani cloth to showcase how a commodity introduced by the Portuguese has become so central to Indian cuisine (Kerkar 2022). Mussels are a significant aspect of the

western coast of India and Kerkar planted them in an exhibit in the form of an ocean. While from one side, they look green, from the other, they appear silver. This exhibit pays an ode to the dynamic nature of the sea. MOG invites the viewers for dialogue and active engagement through such exhibits filled with immense interpretive potential.


Coherent timelines, grand narratives and imposing structures have been some of the characteristic features of colonial and postcolonial museums. My paper highlights a conceptual shift from older museums in India to newer ones that have reformulated the overall museum experience. The museums discussed in this paper have largely emphasised the need for a dialogue with the individual. By doing so, the museums I study remake the relationship between the museum and the individual into a dialectical one. While colonial and postcolonial museums do not lack interpretive potential, they can be viewed by the audience passively. This is not necessarily the case with museums discussed in this paper which force their audiences to introspect and critically reflect upon their subjects. Thus, these museums emerge as spaces that must be interpreted and experienced.

Moreover, the paper has also argued how the museum relates itself to the neighbourhood and the city has undergone significant changes. This is especially evident in the case of Mehnat Manzil and Conflictorium, which have emphasised the need to integrate the local histories of the neighbourhood and the city into their narratives. Further, exhibits in these museums often do not promise to transmit objective knowledge. Instead, as the MOG shows, they are rooted in narrating individual experiences and perspectives. Lastly, with the emergence of virtual museums, the relationship between the physical and virtual space of the museums has acquired newer dimensions. The Living Waters Museum exemplifies how being a virtual museum does not necessarily mean it remains divorced from the physical realm. Overall, the case studies presented in this paper signal the emergence of expression of local histories in contemporary Indian museums that have caused rupture both in the material and intellectual history of museum making in India. This points to some intriguing questions: Which other anxieties could museums address in contemporary India? What other forms could they evolve into?


Ahmed, Sara, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (March 11).

Cohn, Bernard. 2011. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kerkar, Subodh, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (June 2).

Padhiyar, Bhargav, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (April 23).

Ahmed, Sara, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (March 11).

Cohn, Bernard. 2011. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kerkar, Subodh, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (June 2).

Padhiyar, Bhargav, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (April 23).

Prakash, Gyan. 1992. “Science ‘Gone Native’ in Colonial India.” Representations 40: 153–78

1867. Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January to December, 1866. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press.

Sethi, Avni, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (May 6).

Singh, Kavita. 2002. “The Museum Is National.” India International Centre Quarterly 29: 176–96.

Vora, Anuja, interview by Nishitha Mandava. 2022. (May 9).




[1] Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.

Nishitha Mandava
Nishitha Mandava majors in History at Ahmedabad University, India. Her interests lie in the colonial and post-colonial experiences of South Asia.
Nishitha Mandava

2 Replies to “Chronicling Conceptual Shifts in Museums”

  1. Hi Nishita
    It is a wonderful reading. It has highlighted thought process that goes through in establishing a museum. Effort put in shows in the conclusion drawn and in the flow of the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *