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This virtual museum narrates history through objects dating back to the Partition era

Discover fascinating aspects of the history and culture of the subcontinent through a virtual museum showcasing objects from the Partition years to the 1970s.

art and culture Updated: Nov 18, 2017 09:20 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Museum of Material Memory,Art,Culture
In 1982, Nasreen Sultana came on a visit to Jodhpur from Karachi in Pakistan. She met a girl named Toto, who had come to attend a wedding. While they soon left Jodhpur, they stayed in touch for years through letters. But eventually, they lost track of each other. All Nasreen has as mementoes of those days are the letters that she treasures. (Courtesy: Museum of Material Memory)

A Benarasi wedding saree that is passed on as a gift from mother to daughter, an old Sikh ‘granth’ (scripture) rescued from the ritual of ‘Antim Sanskaar of birdh beerha’ or funeral of revered/religious books, an heirloom paan-dibbi (a box to store paan) and ittar-daan (a container for attar)...these are some of the objects whose stories are documented in the Museum of Material Memory.

The virtual museum, which launched in September this year, is the brainchild of Aanchal Malhotra, an artist and oral historian, and Navdha Malhotra, a ceramic artist who works in the field of digital communication.

“One of the objectives of the museum is to unfold the history and generational narratives about the diverse traditions, habits, language and geography of the subcontinent while tracing family histories through objects. We hope this museum will stand for an ethnographic archive and research tool of articles of everyday use,” says Navdha.

The idea came to Aanchal when she was researching objects that migrated across the border during Partition on both sides (India and Pakistan) for her book. “People began writing in to know whether I would be willing to visit them to see the objects. Most times, it was not possible for me,” says Aanchal. She hit upon an idea to ask people to submit stories online about the objects that have existed in their families for generations. Navdha further suggested that they widen the time span till the 1970s to ensure a diverse range of objects.

The museum currently features 15 objects (a new one is added every week), and the curators are constantly looking for additions. The exhibits are sourced from family, friends, colleagues, and via social media.

Each object narrates a story that is at once contemporary and rooted in a bygone era — an antique typewriter that gives a new sense of purpose to a mother, letters that stand as testament to a cross-border friendship, a Pothi or a family register holding up to hundreds of years of history. “The exhibits not only unravel something unique about a person’s history, but also allow us to look at the habits and traditions we share as people of the subcontinent,” says Navdha.

One of the important processes before displaying an object is to verify their authenticity. It can be a tricky process since people rely on their memories of objects which may not always be accurate. “We do as much research as possible when it comes to the tangible object, by referencing books, online and offline archives and pre-existing museum collections. The materials and processes with which it’s made, if there has been any modernisation of the same, the time period, geographic locations, evidences of wear and weather, its usage and importance in society and history — these are the things we try to provide information about.”

Unlike most other museums, the Museum of Material Memory is not limited to a particular site, and doesn’t require an acquisition of objects. “ A lot of the objects hold an emotional attachment for people, they are part of their history, and where they come from. We don’t want to take that away,” says Navdha. The duo are, however, keen to do pop-up exhibits in the near future where people will get to interact with the objects.

While the project is self-funded at the moment, Aanchal and Navdha are seeking funding to gather a team to collect stories and give a token amount to people who travel to research objects.

“Every one of us should be empowered keepers of our own histories, whether they were oral or material based. We hope that this website will encourage people to explore their histories further,” says Aanchal.

To share a memory of an object or view more exhibits, visit

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First Published: Nov 18, 2017 09:14 IST