These museums, both old and new, offer up a fascinating kaleidoscope of the India story.
Museum. A word that for most Indians comes with a groan if it means going to one, or a shrug if it doesn’t. No, for all its riches and traditions and heritage and diversity, India is among the most ‘under-museumed’ of the world’s major countries. As repositories of a nation’s heritage and knowledge, most countries have prioritised museums as the best way to remember and pay tribute to a shared, collective past. The emerging news about the destruction of the National Museum of India in New Delhi – the largest of India’s museums both in area and collection size – and the absence of information on when a ‘replacement’ museum is to come up, has left a concerned few bewildered.
In these unprecedented times, here’s a look at some must-visit museums for those who seek to know the land and its stories better. Yes, in keeping with the best of global trends, many are integrating interactivity, building in more comprehensive scope and sustainable design, building with advanced technology, including apt temperature and humidity controls and encouraging visitors of all ages to engage with their content. The private sector is stepping in, and a number of niche, subject-specific museums have emerged in recent years to boost the country’s museum credentials.
A mix of the old and new, here’s our look at some of India’s must-see museums.
Salar Jung Museum
Notable as much for having more than a million objects in its exhibits (which makes it one of the largest such collections in the world), as well as for belonging to a single family, the Salar Jung is one of India’s oldest and most impressive. Originally a private art collection of the Salar Jung family, the collection today is notable for its sculptures, paintings, carvings, textiles, manuscripts, ceramics, metallic artifacts, carpets, clocks, and furniture.
Location: Hyderabad | Type: Regional general | Opened: 1951
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya
Mumbai’s primary museum, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, CSMVS was constructed to commemorate the visit of King George V, the then Prince of Wales, to India. The building itself is a landmark – a fusion of architectural styles amalgamating influences from Hyderabad’s Golconda Fort, Bijapur’s Gol Gumbaz, Mughal and Maratha structures, and Indo-Saracenic styles of architecture, and is listed as a Grade I Heritage Building. With about 50,000 exhibits, it has since grown to be the primary repository of art, architecture, and natural history of the region.
Location: Mumbai | Type: Regional general | Opened: 1922
Founded as the Imperial Museum by the Asiatic Society of Bengal more than two centuries ago, it is not just India’s oldest museum but also one of the oldest globally. Some of the many landmark events associated with it include the founding of the Geological Survey of India, the Zoological Survey of India, and the Anthropological Survey of India, which are still housed here. With over 100,000 artefacts of Indian art, archaeology, anthropology, geology, zoology, and economic botany, the Indian Museum is also one of the largest museums in the country, and till the founding of the National Museum in Delhi in 1960, was referred to as the nation’s ‘national museum’.
Location: Kolkata | Type: Regional general | Opened: 1814
A state-built museum is a major landmark anywhere, and the still-new Bihar Museum in Patna is drawing admirers for its design and content as it seeks to represent one of India’s oldest civilisational centres. Ambitiously imagined, the 25,000-square metres galleries and marketplace concept – designed by Japanese architects Maki and Associates – is a low-rise space. The ₹500-crore museum is designed to provide a sense of time for visitors walking through different spaces to contextualise history with the present moment. Acknowledged widely as one of India’s best new museums.
Location: Patna | Type: Regional general | Opened: 2015
In Jaipur’s plethora of tourist stops, Sitapura is unlikely to find a mention. Yet, this rather industrial southern suburb of the city is where the Gyan Museum, which houses about 2,500 artefacts highlighting about 3,000 years of human cultural heritage, is located. Textiles, paintings, metal art, antique jewellery, and inscriptions that were sourced over decades by gemologist Gyan Chand Dhaddha, are featured in the Paul Mathieu-designed structure which was started in his memory by his sons.
Location: Jaipur | Type: Artefacts | Opened: 2015
The partition of India in 1947 remains one of the most tragic episodes in the nation’s history. The Partition Museum comprehensively charts the Partition with an evocative narrative arc that moves from pre-Independence, proceeds to the freedom struggle, the early demands for separate countries, and ultimately the Partition and its consequences. This is one of the most moving museums for Indians of any age.
Location: Amritsar | Type: History | Opened: 2015
Calico Museum of Textiles
Once called the Manchester of India for its abundance of textile mills, it is fitting that Ahmedabad was home to India’s first textile museum. The Calico Museum of Textiles, which covers technical studies of Indian handicraft and industrial textiles and houses a historic collection of Indian fabrics, is today considered to be India’s premier textile museum.
Location: Ahmedabad | Type: Textile | Opened: 1949
Spend hours oohing over pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, even ear covers, borla (head ornament), mukut (bridegroom’s crown), araipatta (waist bands), bichhwa (toe rings) and other forms of personal adornment, their beauty a testament to the skills of Indian craftsmen. Discover more unusual objects – sceptres, paandaans (a box containing all the paraphernalia for making a betel-leaf paan), khaasdaan (a serving dish for paan), kamandalu (water pot), hookah, anklets, inkpots, rose-water sprinklers and much more in this, most unique of museums.
Location: Jaipur | Type: Jewellery | Opened: 2015
Heritage Transport Museum
If cars, buses, trucks, even trams, rickshaws, and all other forms of objects related to transportation in India interest you, this is the perfect museum for you. The Heritage Transport Museum showcases the evolution of transportation in India and sets a benchmark in interpretation, exhibition, and communication. As the first private museum of its scale in India, it is built to enthrall the automobile enthusiast.
Location: Manesar | Type: Transport | Opened: 2013
Goa Chitra Museum
For those interested in Goa beyond its beaches, Goa Chitra would be a perfect place to start. With about 4,000 objects on display, the collections of artefacts represent the culture of ancient Goa. Each is supplemented by information collected in situ by interviewing elder members of that community. Overflowing with household and agricultural tools, musical instruments, tools of the trade used by carpenters, tailors, goldsmiths, cobblers, barbers, blacksmiths and masons, traditional games, and even chariots – it’s a window into a Goa that time forgot.
Location: Benaulim | Type: Ethnographic | Opened: 2010