sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Why is Ethnology Still Popular in Indian Museums?

Why is ethnology still popular in Indian museums? And how do audiences respond to ethnologic displays? First, let me clarify what sort of ethnology I am talking about. This article explores material representations of ethnologic theory that depict the differing racial characteristics of ethnic groups.  Ethnology such as this has long since been banished from British museums, dismissed as an embarrassing period in the history of anthropology. However, when I started doing fieldwork in India, I was surprised to find similar ethnologic displays in many of the museums there. I first encountered ethnology in the old museums of Kolkata and Delhi -that were born from colonial collections- but my surprise deepened to find ethnologic displays in new local museums in Northeast India. This article does not seek to denounce ethnology in Indian museums; rather it seeks to understand visitor reactions to displays of race and ethnicity. And due to the shortness of this piece, I will focus solely on the experiences of museum-going public in Northeast India.

This piece explores why ethnology is popular in the largest museum in Northeast India: the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures in Shillong, Meghalaya (henceforth the DBCIC). This Museum represents the indigenous peoples of: Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur. Following Christina Kreps call for comparative museologies (2003) exploring differing curatorial practices globally- I will argue that the DBCIC offers a challenging alternative museology and an interesting resource for examining the notion of indigeneity in South Asia. While numerous academic scholars have addressed the zeitgeist of indigenous minority politics within museums in North America, Europe and Australia (for example: Brown and Peers 2003; Golding and Modest 2013; Karp, et al. 2006; Karp, et al. 1991), minority politics have had little effect on Indian museums. Arguably, Indian indigenous communities have more pressing concerns centred on petitioning the State for affirmative action and increased levels of autonomy (Elliott 2003). However my research indicates that although indigenous communities rarely target museums with their protests, the popularity of ethnology in the Northeast was strongly linked to feelings of melancholia and marginality and experiences of being an ethnic minority.

 ‘There is a very vast difference [between hill and plains people]. We, the tribals, the way we eat, the way we do things, even our alphabet [Khasi] is like the British. People in Delhi don’t know about us. You say Megahalaya, they think Himalaya. You say Shillong, they think Ceylon.’

Alexander, local Khasi man, visiting the DBCIC with his son.

Alexander had taken his young son to the Museum to learn about Khasi culture. Over cups of chai we discussed which gallery in the Museum was their favourite.  The reply was unequivocal: the Land and Peoples Gallery, which was the gallery dedicated to ethnology. Over the course of our interview a strong link emerged between Alexander’s experience of belonging to an ethnic minority in India and his interest in the Museum’s ethnologic displays. The fears of being politically and cultural dominated by India were contrasted with the physical otherness of the Khasi people. Using humour, Alexander’s quote shows Northeasterners feel forgotten by India. His joke highlights a sense of dislocation from the State and mocks perceived Indian ignorance.

‘That gallery? That’s really nice! Because we can notice -because we are from here- the differences and similarities [in faces]. Even I can recognise my face in the Kuki one!  I don’t know so much about my tribe but seeing him reminds me of my tribe. I don’t go to Manipur anymore –it’s too dangerous these days.’

Jonah, a Kuki college student from Manipur.

I interviewed 200 visitors about their favourite gallery and almost every encounter reflected my conversation with Alexander. The Land and People Gallery was overwhelmingly the most popular. This Gallery features ethnologic busts and life sized statues of the peoples of the Northeast. Neither the busts nor the statues are painted. Both are left plain to show facial features rather than skin tones. The Gallery’s collection bears a striking resemblance to Margret Milward’s Indian types. Milward, an English sculptor who toured India in the late 1930s, created ethnologic busts in the Northeast in Manipur and Nagaland. During her time in India she created idealised casts and busts of Indian tribes and a few portraits of specific individuals. Currently in Britain, Milward’s sculptures are seen as markers of ‘an obsolete and embarrassing period in anthropological history’ (Elliott 2012: 222) and de-humanised objectifications (Rycroft 2006: 151). So why are almost identical sculptures so popular with visitors in the Northeast? This dichotomy between post-colonial embarrassment in Britain, and enthusiasm in India highlights how museologies are made by their publics (Kreps 2003). The DBCIC audience enjoyed ethnology. The Northeasterners, rather than tourists, most appreciated ethnological displays. What was intriguing was that numerous respondents claimed that they did not need labels on the busts. Rather they claimed they could tell by seeing what tribe a statue represented. It was a bold claim, but frequently repeated. And when visitors could not find their particular tribe represented –the diversity of the Northeast is hard to replicate within the bounds of a museum- they were visibly disappointed. The pleasure of the Gallery stemmed from looking at oneself.

Edward Photo

On my first encounter with the Land and Peoples Gallery I was accompanied by Benedict, a museum guide from Garo tribe.  As we talked he suggested that I take a photograph of him alongside the correlating bust. Benedict liked the picture so much that he requested that I send him a copy by email. I had to admit there was certainly a resemblance. Benedict claimed that he could tell the difference by visual inspection between Meghalayas’ three dominant tribes: the Khasi, Jantia, and Garo. The Museum’s facial types where easy to match to tribes, he argued. While I did not test his claim empirically, I was interested in the nature of claim. Was there a ‘skilled vision’ (Grasseni 2007) for ethnicity? And did the Museum’s Northeastern visitors have it? These statues had an innate quality for some viewers, echoing Svetlana Alpers argument about museums providing ways of seeing (1991). But as Jay Ruby (1992) and Cristina Grasseni (2007) pointed out, ways of seeing are learned. My short research period could not answer questions regarding ways of seeing conclusively. However it was apparent that only visitors from the Northeast claimed these modes of ethnological seeing. Despite the diversity in the Northeast, there was a clear sense of solidarity between people who self-identified as tribal. Communities enjoyed looking at the representations of other ‘hill people’ from States that they had not visited.

Amongst the visitors I interviewed there was a clear generational divide. When I asked why the Museum was important, the older Northeasterners were quicker to discuss fears about Bengali immigration. This unwanted presence was interchangeably termed: ‘Bengali’, ‘Muslims’, ‘plains people’, immigrants, and illegal immigrants. Few Northeasterners feared Sanskritization1 or the power of Indian public culture. Rather the fear was directed to loss of land and culture to ‘Bengali immigrants’.  When discussing the Museum’s ethnology exhibits, many Northeasterners discussed the differences, as opposed to similarities, between their culture and Bengali culture. While this post will not repeat the anti-Bengali sentiments visitors shared with me, many Northeasterns saw themselves as racially superior. The rhetoric given was simplistic: our race does this, their race does that. For interested readers, there is a large volume of literature that has addressed conflicts surrounding immigration in the Northeast (Baruah 1999 ; Das 2013; Fernandes and Pereira 2012; Karlsson 2011; McDuie-Ra 2008). Conversations about the Museum’s ability to preserve the future of tribal identity were framed by globalisation and immigration more than the soft power of Hindi based public culture.

What I hope this blog post has displayed is how rewarding it can be to explore regional variations in museology. While ethnology will continue to be exiled from Euro-American museums, its popularity in India seems unabated. And the tribes represented through ethnology are not offended by it; on the contrary they were often its most ardent supporters. Ethnology helped the DBCIC represent diversity in order to celebrate diversity. The DBCIC created a museological experience that local audiences responded to with enthusiasm. With so many ethnic groups in the Northeast, the Museum went to great length to accommodate them and visitors where pleased to see their communities represented. When you live in a country over a billion people, recognition is hard to come by.




Alpers, Svetlana

1991   The Museum as a Way of Seeing. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Baruah, Sanjib

1999   India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Das, Samir Kumar

2013   Governing India’s Northeast: Essays on Insurgency, Development and the Culture of Peace: Springer Science & Business.

Elliott, Mark

2003   Behind the Scenes at the Magic House: An ethnography of the Indian Museum Kokata, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge Thesis (Unpublished)

2012   Sculptural Biographies in an Anthropological Collection: Mrs Milward’s India ‘Types’. In Museums and biographies : stories, objects, identities. K. Hill, ed. Pp. x, 338 p., Vol. 9. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Fernandes, Walter, and Melville Pereira

2012   Changing Land Relation and Ethnic Conflicts: The Case of North Eastern India: North-Eastern Social Research Centre

Golding, Vivien, and Wayne Modest

2013   Museums and communities : curators, collections and collaboration. London: Bloomsbury.

Grasseni, Cristina

2007   Skilled visions : between apprenticeship and standards. New York, N.Y. ; Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Karlsson, B. G.

2011   Unruly hills : a political ecology of India’s northeast. New York: Berghahn Books.

Karp, Ivan, Corinne Ann Kratz, and Lynn Szwaja

2006   Museum frictions : public cultures/global transformations. Durham, N.C. : Chesham: Durham, N.C. : Duke University Press ; Chesham : Combined Academic.

Karp, Ivan, and Steven Lavine

1991   Exhibiting cultures : the poetics and politics of museum display : Conference entitled “The Poetics and politics of representation” : Papers. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kreps, Christina F.

2003   Liberating Culture : Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Museums, Curation, and Heritage Preservation. London: Routledge.

McDuie-Ra, Duncan

2008   Between National Security and Ethno-Nationalism The Regional Politics of Development in Northeast India. Journal of South Asian Development 3(2):185-210.

Peers, Laura L., and Alison K. Brown

2003   Museums and Source Communities : a Routledge Reader. London: Routledge.

Ruby, Jay

1992   Exhibiting Cultures; Museums and Communities. Visual Anthropology Review 8(2):107-110.

Rycroft, Daniel J

2006   Santalism: Reconfiguring ‘The Santal’in Indian Art and Politics. Indian Historical Review 33(1):150-174.


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