The recently unveiled Tamil Nadu budget allotted Rs. 5 crores for scientific excavation at archaeological sites at Sivakalai, Keezhadi and Kodumanal. In addition, there was an allocation of Rs 16.6 crores to the State Archaeology Department. Besides this, there was an announcement that the findings from sites such as Keezhadi would be housed in a ‘world-class museum’. All of this is to the good for it shows that the Government, which has for years paid lip service to the causes of history and heritage, apart from instances where political mileage could be milked, has now woken up to its responsibilities of passing on the past to the future. But as to how this money will be spent remains to be seen. Past track record does not fill us with much confidence.
Even in this recent announcement, there was more emphasis on regional pride than on scientific study. There was plenty of chest thumping on ancient Tamil culture – which is right in its own way but should not be at the cost of factual study. Talk of deep-sea excavations at Sangam-era harbours such as Korkai and Azhangankulam is all very well but we only need to see what was done with Kaveripoompattinam or Poompuhar to know what misguided parochialism can do. Today, apart from a few structures of doubtful architectural merit constructed a few decades back, there is nothing to show the antiquity of the place. Hardly any visitors include it in their itinerary and perhaps rightfully so. And yet this too was once promised to be made a showpiece out of. Last year, the Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India promised to digitally recreate Poompuhar but there has been no action since – perhaps the elections had something to do with the announcement and the subsequent inaction.
As for world-class museums, we have heard enough of that sort of declaration. There is not one museum in Tamil Nadu that can even remotely claim to be of that standard and in this we include the much-touted Government Museum at Egmore. There is no consistent policy that can continue across political regimes. The previous Government in power saw a Minister of Culture interacting with captains of industry and virtually cajoling them to adopt parts of the museum. There was great reluctance on their part, and one of them in strict confidence informed Madras Musings that in case there was a change of regime all that money would go to waste as the new Government would want to scrap anything associated with the previous one, no matter what the merits of the scheme. That is exactly what has come to pass – all schemes concerning the museum are now in cold storage.
If that is the fate of the museum in the capital, those in other locations fare far worse. Their monthly footfalls are in single digits, not counting the ones in Thanjavur, Madurai, and a couple of other locations. The displays are tacky in the extreme and many have nothing of value. Most deserve to be closed (see this article on the Karur museum). It is in this context that promised world-class museums need to be evaluated. Truly international museums are not created in five-year tenures. They need to be nurtured over centuries. They need professionals in charge – our bureaucrats serving punishment postings can hardly be qualified as that. And as for design, the PWD cannot be trusted with creating world-class museums.
In conclusion, all we can say is that spending the money is not an issue. What comes out of it will depend on our shedding a parochial mindset that seeks to exaggerate our greatness. Much also depends on how much we are willing to learn from truly international quality facilities across the world. Our guess is neither of these leaps will be made.