In the last quarter of the eighteenth century when the British were busy expanding the horizons of their ‘Indian Colony’ right then some great scholars were indulged in studying the heritage of their new colony. Sir William Jones was one of the greatest scholars present in India at that time and he was envisioning of forming a Society which would study and investigate everything what is produced by Nature or Man within the limits of Asia. Asiatic Society took birth in 1784, fifteen years before the great battle of Serringapatnam where the English defeated Tipu Sultan. Although Sir William Jones did not in express about the possibility of erecting a museum yet he had laid the very vital foundation on which this great monument would later be erected. The Asiatic Society was founded on 15th January, 1784 and initially Governor General Warren Hastings was offered the President’s chair, Hastings declined the offer and made way for Sir Jones.
The Asiatic Society at the beginning was quite a humble organization, the scholars, members meet every week and discussed on antiquities, arts and sciences of Asia. Original research papers on these subjects were time to time published in a journal called ‘Asiatic Researches’. The inaugural address of the Society was given by Sir William Jones on 15th of January 1784, and each year almost like a tradition Sir William performed this honourable task religiously. However the Asiatic Society with all its noble intention was sort of a club where the members meet once in a week, then it became once in a month and from July 1800 through a resolution the meetings were held once in a quarter! However back in February 1814 the Society took the following resolution, it read-
“Resolved accordingly that the Asiatic Society determine upon forming a Museum for the reception of all the articles that may tend to illustrate oriental manners and history, or to elucidate the peculiarities of art and Nature in the East.
“That this Intention be made known the public, and the contributions be solicited of the under mentioned nature.
§ Inscriptions on Stone or Brass.
§ Ancient Monuments, Mohammedan or Hindu.
§ Figures of the Hindu deities.
§ Ancient coins.
§ Instruments of war peculiar to the East.
§ Instruments of Music.
§ The vessels used in religious ceremonies.
§ Implements of native art and manufacture.
§ Animals peculiar to India.
§ Skeletons or bones of animals peculiar to India.
§ Brids peculiar to India, stuffed or preserved.
§ Dried fruits or plants.
§ Mineral or vegetable preparation peculiar to Eastern pharmacy.
§ Ores of metals.
§ Native alloys of Metals.
§ Minerals or every description.
So this resolution in effect gave birth to the Museum of Calcutta. The Society also had a definite plan about the location of the Museum it was to be at the corner of the Park Street on a Government allocated land. On the 2nd of February 1814 Dr. Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish botanist wrote a letter to the Society expressing his desire to be the Curator of the Museum and of course supplying duplicates of his own collection to be displayed in the Museum. Dr. Wallich was a Dane who had come to India as a surgeon for the Danish settlement in Serampore. After the siege of Serampore he was captured by the British and due to his scientific achievements he was put in charge of the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. The Society readily accepted Dr. Wallich’s offer and he was installed as the Superintendent of the zoological and the geological section while the Librarian of the Society was put in charge of the Archaeological section. Since then the Museum thrived, “under the guidance of its enthusiastic founder and individual collectors, among who may be mentioned Col. Stuart, Dr Tytler, General Mackenzie, Mr. Brian Hodgson, Capt. Dillon, and Babu Ramkamal Sen.” Some other Indian contributors can be included in the list they are-Kali Kissen Bahadur, Maharaja Radhakanta Deb, Mathuranath Mallick, Sivachandra Das, Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore and of course Begum Sombre!
Initially paid curators were appointed for short or longer periods, the salary offered varied between Rs. 50 to Rs. 100. However in 1836 the Society had no option other than to apply for the Government fund as in this year their Banker Palmer and Co., became insolvent. Eventually the Society became aware of the fact that in order to keep the Museum in the best condition it is absolutely necessary that the Government funded it liberally as was done in Europe. As a result of this in 1856 a memorial was submitted by the Society to the Government in which they expressed their willingness to transfer all the collection except the Library to the Government. However the matter was postponed for two year until the Great Mutiny subsided, following which the Society submitted another petition to the Government for the establishment of an Imperial Museum in Calcutta. In 1865 after many talks between the Society and Government it was decided that the Society will transfer control of the Museum to a Board of Trustees. The Government passed an Act for this, the Indian Museum Act of 1866 and through this act the treasures collected over half a century passed hands, now became the property of the Government of India.
The Board of Trustees headed by Sir Barnes Peacock served as the President, and the members included the Bishop of Calcutta, the Vice Chancellor of the University and the three other representatives from the Asiatic Society. Although in pen and paper the arrangement looked fine, but the practical aspect of it proved embarrassing for the Society. As the construction for the Museum building began it was realized that it cannot house the three sections previously decided upon- The Museum, The Asiatic Society and the Geological Survey. It was feared that in the new arrangement the Society could not function independently. To solve this issue Sir Ashley Eden and Dr. Thomas Oldham came into the rescue and earned a compensation of one hundred and fifty thousand Rupees in favour of the Society. All this was happening and it was not until 1875, that one of the largest buildings in the city, the Indian Museum was finally ready for occupation. Now the great task of shifting the specimens and collections was to be undertaken and it was on 1st of April 1878 the Archaeology and the Birds gallery were opened for the public. Eight months later in December 1878 the public were admitted to the Mammal Gallery.
In 1904 Sir Herbert Risley, then Chairman of the Trustees proposed to divide the Museum in five sections namely, Zoological and Ethnological, Geological, Archaeological, Art and Industrial, the proposal was finally approved in 1910. Presently there are six sections Archaeological, Zoological, Botanical, Anthropological, Art and Geological. Under each of these sections are number of sub-sections called Galleries for example under the Archaeology Section contains the Pre and Proto Historic Gallery, Bharhut Gallery, Coin Gallery, Egyptian Gallery and so on. On visiting each section one gets simply amazed by the volume of articles collected from all over the World. Now perhaps you can understand the contributions of a humble bunch of scholars who un-ambitiously formed a Society for the cultivation of Art and Culture, and now more than two hundred years after it has taken the shape of a mammoth collection centre of Human work and Phenomena of Nature. However what is the ultimate objective of a Museum? What lies beyond the millions of articles, and objects carefully enclosed in glass shelves? How different a Museum is from a store house? I have lavishly commended the efforts of the scholars who founded this Museum, but what about another objective of the Museum which is to inculcate among the general public a sense of learning. Have this Museum succeeded in imparting this knowledge to the Public? Have we made all necessary effort to promote the knowledge that is stored in the Museum, or for any Museum around the country? I know the answer is not very comforting; the effort is visible once you browse National Museum websites of any Western Countries and ours. The same concern was raised in British India on 28th November 1913 by none other than Sir Asutosh Mukherjee (then serving as the Chairman of the Trustees) while delivering the inaugural address on the History of the Indian Museum. I have simply re-raised the question again, at least while celebrating the 200th year of Indian Museum of Calcutta, among all praises and admirations a precious little concern must also find a place.
1. The History of Indian Museum: An inaugural address delivered by the Hon. Justice Sir Asutosh Mukherjee, Kt. C.S.I, LLD, D.Sc, Chairman of the Trustees, on November 28th , 1913 in the Museum Lecture Hall.