Top Tips – First-time travel to Punjab, India

Local lobbyists for Ancient House at the Golden Temple before meeting the SGPC President

Local lobbyists for Ancient House at the Golden Temple before meeting the SGPC President

In February 2015, Karen-Emma White from Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life travelled to the Punjab region, a trip that was made possible by a bursary from the British Council’s ‘Connections through Culture’ programme. The aim of this visit was to explore how the story of Maharajah Duleep Singh and his family is told both in East Anglia and in the Punjab, and to exchange ideas on interpreting Anglo-Sikh/Indian culture within a museum setting to a wider audience. You can read more about this trip in her travel diary.

Karen worked with The Ranjit Singh Museum, The Sikh Museum at the Golden Temple and Khalsa College in Amritsar, and the Government Art Gallery & Museum and The Punjab Digital Library in Chandigarh. Here are some of Karen’s thoughts about how to get the best from a similar trip and establishing a working relationship with an Indian museum.

  • Take time to plan your trip. Communicating with museums and other organisations in India can take time; emails are not always acknowledged the first time round, so posting an official letter of introduction ahead of your visit is advisable. Remember, not everyone has access to email, and some institutions will only respond to official letters.
  • Speak to as many people as possible about your plans and create a network you can utilise. The British Council UK and British Council India may be able to help with introductions.
  • Be very clear about what you want to do and why. If you are visiting as part of a project, include a brief summary of what the project is about and who is funding it. Having someone on the ground who can visit sites and organisations on your behalf before you visit is invaluable and can open doors much more quickly.
  • Use any existing networks you might already have. If you have good local community connections, find someone who would be willing to help. Likewise, if you know people who have visited the region, particularly in a professional capacity, then do pick their brains. Make contact with the relevant Indian Government State Department, i.e. Department of Cultural Affairs, Museums, Archives, and Archaeology.
    Presentation at the Sikh Museum

    Presentation at the Sikh Museum

  • Have all your visits agreed and then re-agreed in advance. Make sure you know who you are meeting with and, if possible, get a local contact telephone number. Send a last-minute email to remind museums and organisations when you will be visiting and who you will be seeing. A cheap mobile phone with a local rate SIM card is the cheapest and easiest way to contact people directly once there.
  • Choose a hotel with good security, a generator back-up, free Wi-Fi, and an onsite restaurant, especially if you are travelling alone. Look for either Government-controlled hotels, such as the Shivalik View in Chandigarh or some of the well-known hotel chains, such as Ramada or Hyatt.
  • Always carry something suitable to cover your head and shoes that will protect your feet. Dress conservatively and consider wearing Punjabi suits if you are in Amritsar.
Traveling by auto rickshaw in Amritsar

Traveling by auto-rickshaw in Amritsar

  • Always agree any travel costs in advance. Auto-rickshaws are a cheap, easy way to get about.
  • Agree with your hotel that your driver will stay and get you onto your train if you are on your own and traveling on very early morning trains, for example the 5:15am from Amritsar to Chandigarh. Make sure your ticket is in the air- conditioned first class section. Female professionals recommend using the Volvo Bus instead, or a driver, for these journeys.
  • Take a range of ‘official’ gifts with you and be prepared to bring back gifts. I took some mounted photos, which I had framed in Amritsar instead of risking breakages. Take time to develop relationships while you are on your trip. If you are invited to someone’s home, make sure you have a small gift for your hosts, including the hostess.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone to translate if everyone reverts to speaking in Punjabi around you. Journalists all speak English so nobody needs to speak on your behalf.
  • Make allowances for the slower pace some Indian museums can move at and do not expect the experience to be the same as it might be in the UK.
  • The bigger museums in cities such as Delhi have conservation labs and highly skilled staff. Do allow for the huge difference between these and the smaller museums you might be working with.
Karen-Emma White being interviewed by Indian press.

Karen-Emma White being interviewed by Indian press.

  • Don’t be surprised to see things that the UK has long stopped using. For example, in some museums I saw lots of wooden objects coated in dark brown pesticides. Give advice, including about IPM (Integrated Pest Management), but be aware that the equipment, facilities, staff, and training might not be available.
  • Try to find out as much information beforehand about how you could assist. This could be difficult in practice, as it can be difficult to establish regular dialogue with some of the museums. However, it’s worth persevering so that you can go prepared with a short low-tech training plan and some kit to show low cost/easy-to-facilitate techniques, which the museum might be able to put into practice, for example, DIY blue strips for monitoring fading.
  • Have plenty of business cards with you; exchanging business cards is important in the Punjab. You will also be able to build up a network of contacts for the future this way. Be prepared for lots of press interest if you are on official business.
  • Keep the dialogue going. Once you’ve returned to the UK, email, send official letters, and use your local contacts to keep your partnership in place.