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MERL trip to India with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Oliver Douglas, Curator of Collections at the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), travelled to India with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant.  This is Oliver’s blog from his trip.  His full report will soon be published as a Case Study on the ICOM UK website.


Running to tackle global challenges

I am enormously grateful to ICOM UK and the British Council for their generosity in supporting my trip to meet future partners in India in November 2018. I was accompanied by my colleague from the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), Isabel Hughes, and once there we also met with peers from Europe and North America, making this a truly international conversation.

The volume of traffic in any major airport reminds us of food security and climate issues and, as Isabel and I arrived in India these global challenges hit home. Back in The MERL, our ‘Feed the World’ interactive invites visitors to guide change through to 2050 and most end up slashing the world’s population. New Delhi also hammers home the fact that difficult decisions lie ahead. It’s a city of over 20 million people, in a country of more than 1.3 billion. And, as we will learn in days to come, recent figures claim that 400 million of these people are farmers.

Emerging from the terminal what surprises me is how rapid development has been since my last visit 14 years ago. High-rise edifices stand where makeshift structures and scrub lay. The rush from rural to urban has driven demand for infrastructure but at significant environmental cost. Therein lies the next big surprise: the smog. Walking to our taxi an invisible layer settles on my skin. I run with colleagues in the UK and I’ve been planning to run here but the particulate counts aren’t appealing. A rickshaw driver we meet later in the week cements these fears by sharing his moment of fame in a short film made about him by The Guardian.

I’m much more enthusiastic about our itinerary so, an early night beckons before a prompt start (and my first reluctant run). Out on the hoof and I’m distracted by a sacred cow. Then, in nearby Nehru Park I join hordes of particulate-inhaling joggers. Together we channel past a Parks Department tractor. These three sights offer subtle reminders of some of the key causes of climate breakdown: methane production, mechanisation, and humanity.

Business begins with an International Association of Agricultural Museums (AIMA) meeting. This segues into conversations with the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). They take a participatory approach to safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). We’ve been dabbling in this area at The MERL so we glean some fantastic new ideas. Over the remaining week we visit numerous sites including the National Agricultural Science Museum, Ambedkar University (in particular our close allies within the Centre for Community Knowledge), elders and farmers from the peri-urban village of Ghummenhera, and the management team at the National Rail Museum. We fill a gap in our itinerary with a stop at the National Crafts Museum—an open-air, gallery, and retail offer in the heart of Delhi. This is the only museum we visit that I’ve been to before. It’s an innovative model, which connects strongly to The MERL’s ICH interests (plus it has a great restaurant and shop).

Of all the projects we see, perhaps the most exciting is something not yet been fully formed. Ambedkar University and INTACH are co-developing a new form of community engagement. Their ultimate aim is to establish a city museum in a disused building in Old Delhi. At the heart of the chosen structure is a library that was built in 1643 for Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The outer edifice is colonial—a European façade constructed around an ancient core. The site was later home to a local nobleman, then to an agent of the East India Company, before serving as a school, a government depot, and finally Delhi’s Department of Archaeology.

The site is undoubtedly amazing and its layered history reflects the polyvocal narratives our friends have become skilled at capturing. Theirs, however, will be an exercise in contemporary stories, gathered intergenerationally, and driven by a methodology that (much like the building itself) uses a core, multicultural Indian identity as a surface upon which to overlay fragmentary, complex, conflicting, and complementary histories. This is a magnificent exercise in ICH and living history and a new form of organic museology. It will work brilliantly at the heart of multitudinous Old Delhi and it’s something I’d love to see echoed in the UK.

Towards the end of the week, I take a detour from running in Nehru Park and jog around the block instead. Mounting police presence, along with partially-constructed blockades and traffic alert signs, hint at a farming rally set to take place that day. Rural voices demanding political voice from thegrassrootss. I also jog past an elementary school that according to the sign specialises in craft. Another glimpse of an intertwined approach combining creativity, ICH, and education.

How the intergenerational craft school, unsung voices of farm communities, and innovative city museum might operate alongside the more traditional museologies of India and together grapple with the huge climate and food-related challenges we all face, only time will tell. What is clear is that we in the UK have much to learn from other cultures of museum practice and it is only through working internationally, and by us all running in the same direction into our shared, smog-filled future, that we have any hope of tackling problems inherited from past generations or of meaningfully engaging audiences in the contemporary value of our shared global pasts.

You can read more about our trip on the AIMA website, share in some of our activity and conversations on Twitter with the hashtag #DelhiAIMA2018, and read more in forthcoming content on The MERL blog.

ICOM UK