Ethics in museums – A case study

In 2011, I visited Rann Utsav, the annual ‘mela’ that Gujarat government organises apparently to promote handicrafts and tourism in Kutch. The venue is the village of Dhordo close to the border. I never got a chance to share what I saw there since then. Today however, I feel that the issue must be pointed out before it is too late or maybe it is already too late.

While the area covered by the entire ‘utsav’ was huge, the portion given to handicraft display where artists and crafts persons had come from different villages of Kutch, was relatively small. Each ‘cubical’ or stall had to be hired by the artist concerned. So the stall was in a way sold to the local artists. The number of stalls would have been something between 25 to 30 and certainly not more whereas the number of temporary air conditioned VIP tents only exceeded one hundred and fifty. There was also a temporary display of ‘artifacts’, something that may be called a temporary museum where artificial huts, local furniture and a few hand crafted items were put on display. In one corner, in a very tiny artificial lane in which sand was placed, there stood two to three people, in flesh and blood, very much as part of the museum and themselves as ‘objects’ of display. It was shocking. I fell speechless and did not have the courage to pick my camera and click their photograph, like so many other ‘tourists’ were doing every now and then. How could real human beings, of a certain community, be put as part of display in any museum on that very community?

                         Rann Utsav 2011, fig 1 Rann Utsav 2011, fig 2

The people wore their traditional dresses and were being paid obviously a very small amount to stand there, and literally stand, the whole day in a fixed position to pose for tourists to show them the ethnicity of the people of Kutch. This was an attempt by the government to ‘promote’ and ‘preserve’ the cultural heritage of Kutch? Besides the inhuman act of making one stand the entire day in one position, the humiliation of objectifying one’s own person and ethnicity was something I could not fathom.

What I saw immediately brought to my mind a similar instance I had read about on facebook. It was in Bhuvaneshwar; the post said that in a museum on folk culture (this time it was a permanent one), the new attraction was a small temporary display, in which an artificial ‘tribal’ hut was made and in this hut were placed two ‘tribal’ ladies, very much alive, of that ‘tribe’. There were photographs along with the writing which showed a crowd busy in taking photographs of the women. There was one thing that struck me, the horrification and humiliation of it was clearly visible on the faces of the people on ‘display’ in both cases.

This is a shocking example of how the Indian government lacks basic understanding of not just a museum, ethnicity and diverse communities but also of common sense and above all humanity. ‘Tribes’ and ‘folk’ communities, along with the demeaning connotations of the terms, have always been seen as the ‘other’ by the state. Nothing can perhaps prove this more clearly that the above mentioned act.

Rann Utsav 2011, fig 3

While International Council of Museums (ICOM) may be quoted here, which says that in case of representation of contemporary communities and their heritage ‘respect for the wishes of the community involved should be paramount’, it does not talk about exploitation of that very community and its people for a ‘museum’. Perhaps such a situation is yet to come to the notice of ICOM. In India, unfortunately reality is hardly talked about and ‘tribes’, ‘folk’ communities and even India itself, is still at a stage where most of the times even by Indian scholars it is only glorified and seen with an Oriental perspective. We borrowed the lens from the western world and we ourselves are yet to discard it. It would not be wrong to say that we are still slaves maybe not of another nation directly but of an ideology.

The other major attraction of this temporary museum was a video being played on a big screen in a darkened space, which showed ‘sand art’; various images being made by a hand in seconds on the screen. This was definitely not a local art or tradition for that matter in the region. The last and the most prominent image that the hand made was that of Mr Modi, but that is of course another story.


Kanika Gupta

Cultural Archive, IGNCA