Indian art historian Kavita Singh holds lecture ‘Museums Between Cultures'

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Are universal museums still relevant in this day and age? With their authoritarian neutrality, modernist layout and hard objectivity? That was the question that Indian art historian Kavita Singh (1964) posed during the Reinwardt Memorial Lecture on 4 June in a sold-out auditorium. The occasion was the celebration of the 241st birthday of the namesake of the AHK Faculty for museology and heritage.

Singh gave three examples where it had gone wrong in terms of the location of museums in her own habitat, the multicultural societies in East Asia. In 2011, an exhibition of terracotta Buddhas from Bangladesh in Paris had to be cancelled due to persistent rumours about contraband and illegal sales, which resulted in serious public disturbances and vandalism. It should be noted that this was not so much against ‘Paris’ as it was a conflict between politicians, the media and different social classes.

That also applied to Singh’s second example: the destruction, by the Taliban, of the large Buddha statues in Banyan. Upon closer consideration, it appears that it was not so much an anti-Western media spectacle, but a crackdown on the religious minority of Persian Hazaras in that valley. The faces of the Buddhas had already been missing for 1,000 years. That was not the point. The Sunni Taliban resented the Hazaras’ Shiite culture.

Political envy being played out on a cultural and religious level emerged most keenly in Singh’s last case. Sikh extremists are demanding recognition and respect through no longer accepting the handling of their holy book in the museum without the customary ceremonies. Their holy Guru Granth Sahib is now reverentially wrapped in cloths every evening and awoken again in the morning. But now the Muslims also want that to happen with the Qur’an in the glass display case next to it. As a result, there will ultimately be a lot that is invisible in the museum.

In the post-modern society, also in the Indian sub-continent, feeling seems to be defeating fact, passion defeating reason and deception defeating sincerity. Singh concludes that the human rights of everyone are ultimately being suppressed as a result of the authority of the most skilful media player. “We once had a beacon from the Enlightenment in the institute museum. There are no doubt many faults to be found with it, but it may be the least bad beacon that there is”, according to Singh.

By: Riemer Knoop, lector in Cultural Heritage Reinwardt Academy