written 25 January, 2006
Before my talk this afternoon I went and visited the two major museums in Baroda, the Baroda City Museum and the Fateh Singh Palace Museum. The former is a colonial era structure filled with the most amazing collection of objects, as is appropriate to the approach to museum construction from the 19th century. Eclectic doesn't even begin to cover it.
My friend and colleague Deepali works at the Royal Ontario Museum in what I suppose might be considered the modern inheritance of the Baroda museum. In Baroda, and in Toronto, we have a dinosaur exhibit, various natural history displays, and then an entire area devoted to art of various regions. In Baroda, it's much the same, except that there's a certain history hanging over all of the objects. The way they are arranged--in narrow corridors behind dusty glass, of course is an 19th century way of display. But the organization is still used now--by culture, by time period, by medium, and by zoological type. It's interesting more for what we still maintain as part of museology than for what we've left behind. What I'm trying to articulate is the incredible 19th century inheritance of knowledge-construction we still carry with us in our museums and our encyclopedias. If art history in India and elsewhere arose in part from botanical categorization of the world's flora, then it makes sense that we should have in a museum the kinds of objects Foucault was so enamoured of in Borges' "Chinese" dictionary: an aging specimen of octopus in sharing the same space as a painting from the hill state of Kangra, sharing the same space as a mammoth skull and a plaster cast of Assyrian reliefs now in the British Museum.
The Fateh Singh museum was less 19th century in that sense, but more about collecting practices and patronage during the 19th and early 20th century. The Maharaja of Baroda was a patron of Raja Ravi Varma, a late-19th century Indian painter who was the court artist for awhile. He also painted Hindu mythological subjects in a European academic oil style, a fascinating construction and resuscitation of Indian iconography. So next to images of various goddesses we have images of princesses of the royal family, looking oddly similar. the king also collected European paintings, some of British painters who clearly came through Baroda, an Italian sculptor, and various Parisian works (they had a palace in Paris as well), and then a whole gallery of Japanese objects: it's clear that the family didn't escape the Japonisme craze of the 19th century. The museum ends with a whole gallery of copies of European masters, primarily Titian and the like, which again is intriguing for what they chose to copy.
at the end I was in visual overload! Off to give my talk now; I will report on that later...