USF's Museum Blog

Through the Looking Glass: Museums & Empire

by Cho Rao

There is much discussion and debate today about globalization, including in the international museum world. In the past museums showcased geopolitical expansion through exhibitions and programs that celebrated imperialism and empire; preyed on the art and culture of indigenous peoples; and told history through a conquerer’s lens. The specters of colonialism continue to haunt post-colonial societies. Perceptions of nationhood, heritage, culture and identity are inexorably linked to this period of oppression and exploitation.  These tensions between the current museum mandate of expressing new global values and past practices is especially apparent at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Bombay, India.  I spent my summer internship exploring its mission, challenges and progress as it positions itself for the 21st century.

Dr. Laud, for whom the museum is named.

The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum started off as the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1872 and is the oldest museum in Bombay. The permanent collection is made up of duplicates of the objects created for the Great Exhibition of 1851, where the arts and crafts from British colonies worldwide were presented for the purpose of growing trade and commerce. The Museum also contains a wide array of models and dioramas that illustrate daily life in the Bombay Presidency during the late 19th century. After India gained independence in 1947, the museum building and collections came under the proprietorship of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and in 1975 was renamed after Dr. Bhau Daji Lad (an eminent physician and key member of the original Museum Committee), in recognition for his contribution to the establishment of the museum. The building and collections fell into severe disrepair due to neglect and poor handling.

From 2004 to 2008, the museum went through a massive and comprehensive renovation. It was so successful that the BDLM received a UNESCO Award of Excellence in 2005. Today, post restoration, the current curatorial strategy presents the collections in a manner that “showcases the importance of the 19th century in the evolution of Mumbai into a major metropolis”. However, it is difficult to look past the ethnographical slant given to many aspects of design, display and interpretation.

BDL_galleries_KBMumbai_01For example, objects such as clay models depicting various native communities in their traditional costumes are housed in original wood and glass cabinetry. I am also disheartened to see terms like “pure race” and “exotic products” mentioned in labels and while the history of the museum is explained on introductory wall panels, individual objects are provided with little context beyond superficial descriptions and technique.


The colonial gaze remains and I am surprised to find little to no antipathy towards the British Raj and to my eyes a complete lack of any form of post-imperial angst. I find that the absence of a strong or proud Indian voice allows the colonizer’s point of view to permeate throughout the entire permanent collection, and the notion of the mute subaltern is upheld. BDL_galleries_KBSplExhib_05I am not often in complete agreement with postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak’s seminal and controversial work, “Can the Subaltern Speak? in which she contends that knowledge is never neutral and expresses the interests of its designers, discussing specifically the manner in which Western cultures investigate other cultures. But, in this case her arguments are shown to have some validity, where the formerly oppressed seem to voluntarily, albeit perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate the cultural hegemony imposed by their former oppressors.


UnknownHowever, the subaltern can be heard loud and clear in the BDLM’s contemporary art exhibitions, such as in, Yog Raj Chitrakar Memory Drawing X by Nikhil Chopra and This too Shall Pass by Sudarshan Shetty, both held in 2010. Here the artists seek to subvert beliefs of colonial supremacy and critically examine the role of history, memory and nostalgia in the making of contemporary Indian culture and identity, through their individual practices. This unlikely marriage, between the permanent colonial era collections showcased as if almost transported from another time and their avant-garde contemporary shows that push the boundaries of fine art today, and are evidence that the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum is breaking the model of a conventional museum.

Artist Nikhil Chopra as Queen outside the colonial facade of the museum.

Artist Nikhil Chopra as Queen outside the colonial facade of the museum.



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