Lost in translation?

National Institute of Design India

When I visited the British Museum recently I was witness to a man with his hands joined in prayer before a statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh. Stood there among the crowds of tourists in backpacks and Saturday visitors gaping at the Indian sculptures around us, and unaware of me observing him, he closed his eyes and shut himself off with the statue in veneration. His act of worship in the midst of the gallery showed me he did not see the transferral of the statue from temple to museum as rendering it devoid of religiosity. This made me think about the way in which objects are portrayed in museums once they have been removed from their original environment. Isn’t something lost in the process? How do museums re-create an authentic encounter with the object in an essentially staged setting? These questions are relevant not only to religious objects but all objects.

It is universally acknowledged that language can be lost in translation. The nuance of a word may not be done justice or the meaning of a gesture might not come across; and the same is true of things when they are displaced from their original time or place and put on display. Our perception of them can be altered by something so apparently simple as the colour of a wall, the juxtaposition of one object with another, or the creation of categories that imply connections or historical continuities. The aesthetics of exhibition spaces are therefore not neutral. They have significant implications for the ways in which objects they display are tacitly imbibed with meaning. The way in which objects from India are displayed at the British Museum is one example of this.

The permanent Indian collection is mainly found in two areas of the museum: the Asian sculpture galleries (rooms 33 and 33a) and the Islamic gallery (room 34). Room 33 contains a collection of early sculpture from the Indian subcontinent, most of which was acquired in the nineteenth century under the curatorship of a Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks. It is an enormous gallery with the larger sculptures running down the centre on plinths and a series of sections like large alcoves along the sides, divided by two parallel rows of pillars and large Victorian cabinets that contain smaller objects.

The choice of objects from India displayed here is in itself far from neutral. They reflect attitudes to art at the time of their acquisition; the predominance of sculpture fitting with a nineteenth century fascination with neoclassical European statues. Moreover, the very idea of collecting and displaying Indian objects was bound up with the politics of Britain’s colonial rule. Museums were a way of projecting Empire in an apparently objective form for Europeans to apprehend the distant East, which for most was beyond physical reach. The portrayal of an ancient India through the collection of early sculpture painted a picture of the East as being different from the rapidly industrialising West; a form of imperialism Edward Said has famously defined as “Orientalism”.1

In this gallery, objects from as far and wide as China, South Asia and South East Asia are united on the basis that the following three religions are found there: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The union of these extremely diverse regions in room 33 poses further questions. What do South Asia and South East Asia have in common? Is religion a valid basis for categorisation? Geographical distances seem to shrink, as we find sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses from India alongside Buddhist sculptures from as far afield as South East Asia. And how should objects from different periods be displayed? Temporal gaps are inadvertently made to dissipate in, for example, the placing of a bracket from a stupa gateway at Sanchi from the first century alongside an Indian container for powder from the eighteenth and the nineteenth century.These two objects, created nearly two millennia apart, are allied solely by their association with Hinduism. Their juxtaposition seems, however inadvertently, to orchestrate an image of a timeless India in which those two millennia have seen little change.

The so-called Islamic gallery (room 34) further complicates the division of objects from India on religious lines. Alongside objects from countries including Iran, Turkey, and Syria, we find several cases of objects from Mughal India, including a collection of seventeenth century jewellery, on the basis that the Mughals were Muslim, too. The result of including ‘Islamic India’ in the museum’s ‘Islamic gallery’ is a stark division of Indian objects, with so-called Hindu, Buddhist and Jain objects in one gallery and so-called Islamic ones in another. The intention was clearly to tease out the cultural similarities between the nations of the whole of Asia; and I do not suggest that this is anything but a complex and delicate task. But the consequence of categorising object by religion is that India, a multi-faith nation, is fragmented and there is little or no acknowledgement of the cultural fluidity between religions there in real-life.


We can see here the curatorial challenges of displaying objects that are dislocated from their original context, rendering them fragments of some larger cultural whole to re-create their significance for the visitor for the museum. But there are also administrative factors at play. Practical factors also shape how the museum is configured. There is a substantial collection of Indian paintings that is not on display (even though the BM acknowledges the public are interested in them in the fact that prints of some of them can be purchased from the museum shop) because of the limited available gallery space. There are legal issues at work, too. Interestingly, I learnt that the main factor governing the layout of the sculpture gallery (room 33) is the fact that the large, imposing wooden cases dating from the nineteenth century are listed. This means that they cannot be destroyed or re-configured to mobilise the space and fit in objects currently confined to the museum’s storerooms.


The stark contrast in the way objects are displayed in the museum’s temporary exhibitions versus its permanent collection shows how big an impact the aesthetics of display can have for the way in which we perceive objects at the British Museum. An exhibition of Indian objects called ‘Garden & Cosmos’ that took place in 2009 featured a selection of royal court paintings from seventeenth to nineteenth century Jodhpur.3 What was striking when you entered the exhibition was the bright green colour of the walls (quite unlike the neutral cream of permanent sculpture gallery). The colour was much more than a backdrop. It brought the paintings to life by picking out the shade found in many of the landscapes, themselves highly saturated with colour. The visitor could not only go to the exhibition, but also attend a series of related talks and meander through a modern re-creation of the gardens of Jodhpur; since there was an entire programme of events alongside the exhibition entitled the “Indian Summer” which included an impressive botanical garden that was installed in the museum’s forecourt by Kew Gardens.Thanks to the flexibility allowed by the temporary exhibition as a medium, the sumptuous Jodhpur paintings were brought to life.

It may be possible to alter the way the permanent collection of Indian objects is displayed so that they can be more objectively understood. It may be possible to change the configuration of the Asian sculpture gallery at the British Museum, for example, or bring Indian paintings out of the storeroom, practicalities permitting. However, like any other cultural medium of representation, museums will never cease to be a product of their historical setting. They will never be an equivocal statement of the way objects existed in their former lives. Some nuance will always be added or subtract something from the meaning of an object in the way it is displayed; like a word or concept interpreted in another language. But this does not mean that objects in museums are necessarily lost in translation. Nor does it render our service to the historical integrity of objects futile. On the contrary, it means that the role of curators in assuring the fair representation of objects is essential; and this is something that can only be achieved where political and administrative factors come second and scholarly ones are paramount.

1 Edward Said, Orientalism (1978; reprint, Penguin Books: 2003)

2. British Museum numbers OA 1842.12-10.1 and OA 1921.10-23.18 respectively

3. Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (London: 28 May – 11 October 2009, British Museum exhibition)

4. India Landscape: Kew at the British Museum (1 May – 11 October 2009, West Lawn, British Museum forecourt)

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