Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai : Revival of a Wonderland

‘‘Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.’’—Orhan Pamuk, Nobel laureate

BDL Museum Building : The first colonial building to be built for the specific purpose of housing a museum

Collection of objects is a natural human instinct because we are materialistic and curious by nature. Everybody collects something. Aristocrats and moneybags collect for their love of art or to satisfy their ego. Historically, the beginning of collecting various objects of art and interest are traced to the European Renaissance in Europe of 14th century. The world was becoming more accessible. With the opening of new trade routes from Europe and acquiring different objects d’art from these new regions became easy. Many rich individuals started buying and storing objects for display or decorating their houses. Thus the trend of private collections came into fashion. Often these private collections remained private, out of the reach of the masses. Slowly, like libraries, public museum too appeared, because one of the most interesting ways to know about the world is to see and closely examine the objects created by deterrent people, in different corners of the world.

The majestic statues and bust that sit in the ground floor of the museum
The bust of Queen Victoria, Ground Floor

The first public museum in India was established in 1814 in Kolkata (the then capital of British India) by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Today it is known as the Indian Museum. It remains the largest and oldest museum in India.
Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum is the oldest (and third oldest in the whole of India) museum in Mumbai. It was originally established in 1855 as the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Town Barracks. The collection was moved to its present premises in 1872. Initially the museum showcased different varieties of decorative and industrial arts. In 1975 the museum was renamed in honour of Bhau Daji Lad (Ramachandra Vitthal Lad; 1822–74), the first Indian Sheriff of Mumbai, a successful physician, Sanskrit scholar, an antiquary, a philanthropist and an educationist. Dr. Lad was one of the two secretaries of the Museum Committee (along with Dr. George Birdwood, a professor at the Grant Medical College, Mumbai and secretary of the Asiatic and Horticultural societies) when it was first instituted. The original design of the Palladian style building too was conceptualized by Dr. Birdwood.

Detailed work on a railing top
A statue of Yaksha
Examples of amazing workmanship of ivory

The magnificent Victorian Palladian styled building containing with Corinthian columns and tiled staircase of the museum is a piece-of-art in itself. Beautiful wrought iron arches and brightly painted columns rise to a breathtakingly beautifully decorated roof. The Museum building is one of the most important historical sites of the city. It was the first colonial building to be built for the specific purpose of housing a museum.
The ground floor displays a painstakingly collected collection of Indian crafts and artworks, handicrafts (silverware, pottery, laquerware, paintings, carvings in ivory etc.). Upstairs houses an unusual collection of clay figurines showing the people from different professions, tribes, cultures and customs of the Mumbai area during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A spectacular long-hall-view from the first floor
Magnificent Victorian Interiors of the Museum

The condition of the museum was deteriorating and a major restoration was needed. A tripartite agreement was signed between the MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai), the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and INTACH in February 2003 and the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum Trust were established for the revitalization and management of the Museum. The Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation generously extended financial support. Intensive research and preparatory work went into putting the project. The experts of INTACH put their heart and soul to the restoration work. The restored museum was reopened to the public on January 4, 2008.
The restoration of the objects is an ongoing task at the museum and approximately four thousand objects have been conserved by INTACH’s expert conservators till date. The museum’s restoration project won the 2005 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence for Conservation. Preservation—or more accurately preventive conservation—is a time consuming and meticulous job. Only a very painstaking effort gives a new life to the damaged object and provides an environment to minimize further damage or deterioration.

A miniature clay figurine of an elephant rider
A small figurine of a Blacksmith
A figurine of village boys playing
Miniature clay models of British Indian soldiers
Miniature clay models of British Indian soldiers

Today, the Museum is managed by a public-private partnership, a first for a cultural institution in India. The partnership involves the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Jamanlal Bajaj Foundation. The Museum also partners with various galleries and museums to host exhibitions, like its recent tie-up with Amsterdam’s CoBrA Museum of Modern Art. It is also a partner of Google Cultural Institute initiative.
What is unique about the museum is that it functions like a living entity, engaging people of different interest and age groups to create awareness. Can you imagine a museum to open its premises for birthday parties? Yes, it offers super contemporary workshop options for birthday parties. Here one can select a workshop from a range of activities inspired by the Museum’s collection and exhibitions led by the museum’s education team.
Film shows for children, recitals by well-known musicians, free weekend public tours, art history courses and workshops for school children are few of its activities. The Museum also hold interpretive gallery visits, workshops and guided tours for its visitors offering them the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with its collections and contemporary exhibitions.
A dynamic cultural hub ‘the Museum Plaza’ was introduced by the museum in December of 2012. This actually is a public recreational space for performances, outdoor activities, talks and workshops.

Representation of different communities of Mumbai during 19th-early 20th centuries
Representation of many communities of Mumbai during 19th-early 20th centuries

In its aim to remain contemporary, the Museum—with the help of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and private donors—is in the process of expanding itself. The ambitious expansion plan includes a new modern wing. This wing will house a Mumbai Modern Gallery, a state of the art Special Exhibitions Gallery to host national and international exhibitions, an auditorium, a learning centre, expanded library and archives, a conservation centre, staff and visitor amenities like cafes and shops. This new wing is expected to be ready in a couple of years.
This oldest museum of Mumbai is truly a wonderland, engaging and awesome. I hope to learn more about the museum and its contribution towards the heritage revitalization during my next visit to Mumbai. The words of author Nanette L. Avery, ‘‘A museum is a place where nothing was lost, just rediscovered…” seems so true for BDL Museum, Mumbai.

The Basalt elephant sculpture procured from the Elephanta Island

BDL Museum is very convenient to reach, as it is situated just 3-4 minutes’ walk far from Byculla (भायखला, भायखळा) railway station. Open 10.00 am to 6.00 pm. It remains closed on Wednesdays and certain public holidays. The Museum’s website is a delight to explore, showcasing different facets of its manifold activities.
‘‘Museum is a place where nothing was lost, just rediscovered.’’ BDL Museum is an apt example of this.

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