Monday, July 14, 2008

A Visit to the Indian Museum

Many years ago, a little boy visited the Indian Museum in Calcutta with his parents. As he roamed about in the huge galleries, among the remains of mammoths and whales and stuffed animals from all over the world, he felt belittled by them. That little boy of 22-23 years ago is grown up into yours truly now and he visited the museum again last weekend to show his sister around. And what's odd, he felt equally belittled by those galleries and those fossils now. The museum never grows old!
The Indian Museum was founded in 1814 and transferred to the present building in 1878. At that time the museum had two galleries; now it has over sixty galleries of Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Botany sections, spreading over thousands of square feet. There are over one million exhibits in this single building.

My sister had never been to this museum, so last Sunday we decided to visit it. Since it would take several hours, and food was not available inside, we had our lunch early and went in. Before we could go in, however, our bags had to be passed through an X-Ray machine and deposited in the luggage room. Then we entered the first room and stopped in awe. The gigantic fossilized skull of a prehistoric elephant greeted us with ten foot long tusks. Behind it was the complete fossil of an armadillo’s ancestor, and then a bird with an egg. All around the large room were hundreds of fossil remains – prehistoric elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, buffaloes, birds and reptiles. We were almost overwhelmed before we left that first room.

The Indian Museum primarily has two types of displays: Archeological and Geological. We decided that we would see the Geological things first. Accordingly, we entered the invertebrate gallery on the first floor. Before entering there, however, we had already seen the Bengal school painting gallery.

As one enters the invertebrate gallery, the first thing seen is a vertebrate: a large prehistoric reindeer skeleton with antler span of eleven feet. However, the rest of the room is filled with thousands and thousands of cases filled with oceanic fossils and microfossils. We just wondered who had the time to identify and classify all that stuff.

Entering the Mammals Gallery, however, is an entirely different experience. Even before we entered, we saw something’s backbone near the ceiling. We couldn’t see either end of it from outside the door. Turns out it is the skeleton of a ‘small’ whale, complete with baleen and all. All over the huge room are stuffed animals: Elephants, rhinoceroses, antelopes, tigers, lions, leopards, buffaloes, hippopotami, deer, foxes, wolves, goats, pigs, anteaters, apes, zebras, capybaras, walruses, sea lions – you name an animal and it’s there. Along with the stuffed ones there are skeletons too. The walls above the showcases in the high-ceilinged room have hundreds of mounted antelope heads with beautiful symmetrical antlers. But the most magnificent exhibit is at the entrance and is usually noticed while coming out. They are two pieces of bone – one on each side of the gigantic door, and these bones taper and curve as they move upwards and meet high above the door near the ceiling. And these two are not bones of any prehistoric creature but just the lower jawbones of a blue whale!

We walked from one gallery to another, from mammals to reptiles, then birds, and marine life and insects. We saw butterflies with wings as large as a man’s palm. We saw a multistoried hornet’s nest. We saw a huge stuffed crocodile displayed along with the human jewelry recovered from its stomach. We saw beautiful wooden dolls in the plants gallery, samples of minerals and an entire fossilized tree. Then we started on archaeology.

I was never good at remembering dates in the history class, so I won’t be able to describe the sculptures that we saw. There were beautiful Hindu and Buddhist statues. The gallery with the Indus Valley civilization relics was closed for renovation. We also met the most famous inhabitant of the Indian Museum, an Egyptian Mummy, in his air-conditioned chamber. Another gallery worth mention is the cultural anthropology section where people from different parts of India are depicted in their traditional clothing.

As we roamed around, we saw some people taking photos. First I thought they were taking them secretly, but later we saw some people taking photos openly. Then we found a notice saying that one could take photos by paying Rs. 50. They had put the notice inside the gate!

Which brings us to the negative things about the museum. The museum has enough fossils to fill another museum, but the specimens are not being maintained properly. The writing has vanished from the blue whale’s lower jaw and I recognized it only because I remembered it from my earlier visit. Many of the stuffed animals (like the polar bear) could do with a cleaning. A cafeteria inside is a definite necessity so that people can spend the whole day there. Overall maintenance wise, I would put the Salar Jung Museum ahead of the Indian Museum, but even then, this museum is a must visit place for a person visiting Kolkata with some time in hand.

3 comments:

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