The glorious history of the Indian Museum

The glorious history of the Indian Museum

February 6, 2014

On February 2, 2014 the Indian Museum turned 200. The history of the origin and the growth of the Indian Museum is one of the remarkable events towards the development of heritage and culture of India. On February 2, 1814, Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish botanist, had in a letter to the Asiatic Society of Bengal made an appeal for the formation of a museum in Calcutta, which lacked a “public repository… to which the naturalist or scholar can refer.”

The beautiful facade of the Indian Museum

The museum has begun a year-long celebration of this monumental achievement. It began on February 2 with the inauguration of a refurbished museum. The bicentennial celebration were begun by Governor MK Narayanan. Along with him were present Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

The governor, who has personally overseen the makeover of the museum building, said it was “the epitome of modernity in antiquity”, and that it must become “more exuberant” and a “source of public education… harnessing modern ideas.” He also said in recent years, the standard of had fallen, but after the makeover “the museum again ranks among the best” like the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The central government has sanctioned Rs 100 crore for the Indian Museum.

Prime Minister Singh made an appeal to the management of the museum “to see itself as an agent of change and development. As it renews its journey, it should seriously think about its role as a purveyor of knowledge. It is not enough in today’s world to house a collection.”

Mamata Banerjee said she had visited the Indian Museum when she was in school, and admitted that it was a remiss on her part. She wanted all schoolchildren to visit the museum more often. She further said the state government was restoring rural museums to restore and preserve heritage. "One hundred-and-sixty-six rural museums will be restored and set up across Bengal," she declared.

The governor, prime minister and chief minister at the inauguration

Later in the evening, the eminent historian, Romila Thapar deliverd the prestigious Nathaniel Wallich Memorial Lecture. In an enlightening talk, she began by explaining the genesis of European museums and how the renaissance underlined the Greek cultural roots of the continent. She also mapped the conqueror's mindset by saying: "Bringing in objects from other culture was a demonstration of capture and justification of colonisation."

She also traced the evolution of museums. "In India, museum was a colonial imposition. But the notion of museums has long changed since. They are no longer seen as only collection of objects." She pointed out: "Race, dynasty or religion were standards for classification of antique objects and artworks. There should be more research on why this was so. The function of a museum is to educate the public. The museum carries a message. In the colonial times, it reflected their glory. But two centuries later this has changed. The appeal is no longer to the colonial masters but the public at large. The future of the museum requires us to consider it an institution with a higher goal for public good. It mediates between the past and us. But the past shouldn't be a disconnected theory. A museum should make the invisible visible to us. That is what I expect from Indian Museum."


For the last many months, the Indian Museum has been undergoing massive renovation, of the external part of the building as well as the interiors, including a major rearrangement of the galleries, artefacts, etc.

  • The building has been refurbished without any structural changes. The façade and interiors were deplastered for the first time in 200 years. The same material was recycled to replaster the entire structure.
  • The refurbished galleries are Archaeology (Bharhut, Gandhar, Coin, Long Gallery and the corridors), Decorative Art, Textile, and Anthropology (Human Evolution).
  • The Coin and Human Evolution galleries now have interactive kiosks. The labels are clearer and more informative. There are maps and charts as well.
  • There are fewer exhibits and thus more breathing space for the objects. The wooden clutter and cabinets have been removed from the entrance to the museum and the Archaeology gallery.
  • State-of-the-art ticket counters have been set up, as well as a cafeteria, a souvenir shop and restrooms.
  • The new LED lights have removed the shadowiness of the interiors.
  • The gallery windows are to be kept open for better illumination.
  • The Decorative Art and Textile galleries look particularly sumptuous with their displays of brocades, kimkhwab (a type of brocade woven of silk and gold or silver thread), shawls, ivory pieces, the Burmese temple front and the house front from Bhavnagar in Gujarat. All the exquisite details stand out now.
  • The entrance to the Archaeology section is through the Bharhut gallery and it is clearly indicated. Earlier this entrance was closed and it was easy to miss.

A gallery at the museum

Architectural remains from Bharhut, belonging to Sunga period

History of the museum
  • Founded in 1814 at the Asiatic Society of Bengal (at its present building on Park Street), the Indian Museum is the earliest and the largest multipurpose museum not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • With its foundation, the museum movement started in India. Since then, the movement has magnificently developed into more than 400 museums in the country. The movement in fact was the beginning of a significant epoch, initiating the socio-cultural and scientific achievements of the country.
  • Sir William Jones, a profound scholar who devoted his life to the service of India, founded the Asiatic Society in 1784 in Kolkata. The role of the Asiatic Society was to form a learning centre for the development of art and culture, entertain people, disseminate knowledge and preserve the cultural as well as natural heritage of mankind for posterity within the geographical limits of Asia.
  • In 1796, the members of the Asiatic Society conceived the idea of establishing a museum at a suitable place for the reception and preservation of objects, whether man-made or natural.
  • The idea got shape in the beginning of 1808 when society started occupying its premises erected at the corner of Park Street on land granted by the government.
  • In 1802, Dr Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish botanist, wrote a letter to the society in which he strongly advocated the formation of a Museum.
  • The proposal found ready acceptance with the members of the society and it was determined to establish a museum at the premises of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
  • Thus a museum, under the guidance of Dr Nathanial Wallich was established on February 2, 1814 at the Asiatic Society. He was appointed as Honorary Curator of the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society.
  • Interesting and curious objects were collected from various parts of the country. A list of gifts consisted of 174 items  were donated by 27 European donors in 1816. 
  • Indian contributors also started gifting objects to the museum. Out of 49 donors of the list six donors were Baboo Ram Comul Sen, Kali Kissen Bahadoor, Moharaja Radhacant Deb, Mathuranath Mullick, Sivachandra Doss, and her Highness Begam Sambroo.
  • In 1837, James Prinsep, Secretary of the Society wrote to the Government to adopt proposition of the Society for the formation of a National Museum at the cost of the State.
  • Dr Helfer and other scientific officers decided to found a museum of economic geology in Kolkata; this museum was opened in 1840.
  • In 1858, the members of the society submitted a resolution to the Government of India for the establishment of an Imperial Museum at Calcutta.
  • In 1858, the Geological Museum was amalgamated with that of the Geological Survey of India.
  • In 1862, the government of India announced the foundation of a Public Museum in Kolkata.
  • In 1865, it was decided that the Society should make over to the board of trustees for the proposed museum for zoological, geological, and archaeological collections and in this connection, the government of India would provide a suitable accommodation for the Society in the museum building.
  • Afterwards it was realised that there would be a space crunch if this was followed.
  • Thus, in 1867 the foundation of the present building of the Indian Museum was laid.
  • It was designed by Walter Granville. 
  • After the completion of the construction of the new building on Chowringhee Road, the Society Museum was shifted from the Asiatic Society to the present building and it was thrown open to the public with two galleries on April 1, 1878.
  • Later on it was transformed into a multipurpose institution with six sections, viz., Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Zoology, Geology, Botany.
  • The museum is also popularly called by its Bengali name, Jadughar.
  • It is an institution under the Ministry of Culture, government of India.

Mughal paintings at the museum

The Indian Museum is the earliest and the largest multipurpose museum in Asia. Worldwide, it is the ninth oldest.

Dinosaur skeletons at the museum

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Comments (3)
Koustav Ghosh Reply
February 06, 2014
I have visited only once in childhood. The room with the dinosaur skeletons was closed due to restoration. Felt disappointed. After that never planned another visit. Willing to visit again.
Madhumita Reply
February 06, 2014
Visited long back. Still remember 'the mummy' !!!
Rana Sarkar Reply
February 06, 2014
Ohh... The collection is really beautiful.... anyone visiting Kolkata should spend a whole day in Museum
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