First Maruti 800 to memories, Delhi needs museum for its history

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 20, 2015 11:46 IST

Nostalgia is a heady feeling. Last week when Hindustan Times reported how the very first Maruti 800 was rusting away outside a south Delhi house after its owners passed away, it drew emotional responses from our readers.

Almost everyone who wrote or called us remembered the good times associated with their own Maruti 800. Many offered to buy the car for keeps. The family of the owner , however, is determined to give it only to a museum, preferably one run by the manufacturer, so it is preserved as a piece of shared history.

Indeed, the car would have been a star exhibit in a city museum if Delhi had one. But sadly, the government-run museums in the national capital are more repositories of heavy-duty historical artefacts from the distant past. There is no room for everyday life and very little for anything contemporary that people can make a personal connection with.

In 2011, when Hindustan Times decided to celebrate the history of New Delhi that was turning 100 later that year, we realised how little of this trajectory was documented or curated. To run the project that lasted a year, we had to scan all of Delhi's archives, libraries, government record rooms and private collections for any information and photographs of that time.

To cover communities, culture, fashion, and high-life, we relied on oral accounts of 80 and 90-year olds and their family albums. All along, we wished there was one place in Delhi that collected material on the city's history as it grew from a barren Raisina village in 1911 to India's largest mega city.

Across the world, vibrant cities have kept their history alive in their civic museums. The Museum of London has been collecting the memories of Londoners till the most recent times. There are items on fashion, eating and drinking, shops and shopping, local and national government and the royalty.

But the most interesting is the oral history collection that contains more than 5,000 hours of recorded life story interviews of people who talk about everyday experiences in London. Another project 'The Peopling of London' has focused on London's multicultural character. The 'Working Life' contains 200 interviews recorded during the 1980s, covering trade and manufacturing, with focus on London's docks.

One of Shanghai's most visited museums is the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall that documents the evolution of the city. A perfect scale model of the city displayed here shows how it transformed from the colonial quarters and potato fields into a megapolis.

Toto's Nostalgia Museum in Seoul displays a variety of vintage items that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea. Sections on toys, sunglasses, magazines, electrical appliances and items of daily life see the highest footfall.

Few cities can match Delhi's rich layers of contemporary history. But we are just too busy to keep any record. It is the nostalgic heritage that bonds people. All of us appreciate opportunities to relate to stories and anecdotes we heard from our parents or to relive moments we cherished ourselves earlier.

For instance, wouldn't it be nice if there was a place where we could see the trams that crisscrossed Chandni Chowk till the 1960s, or the double-decker buses that we have only seen in posts on Facebook and Twitter? How interesting would it be to see how the first radio and TV sets sold in Delhi looked like? Or the posters of first films that released in city's cinemas that we still frequent?

Studies by psychologists at the University of Southampton have found that reconnecting with shared memories improves mood, increases self-esteem and strengthens social bonds. Contemporary museums are a perfect place to identify one's personal history in a city's collective narrative of which, in Delhi's case, that first piece of Maruti 800 is very much a part. But more than housing such fine exhibits, we need a city museum perhaps to bond as Delhiites. For a city lacking any single dominant narrative, thanks to constant inflow of migrants, that is not a luxury.

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