Remembrance of Things Past

Three London exhibitions grapple with ways to confront the legacy of the British Empire

01 March 2018
A closeup of Folio 16v from the Bakshali manuscript, 224-383 CE.
COPYRIGHT BODLEIAN LIBRARIES, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
A closeup of Folio 16v from the Bakshali manuscript, 224-383 CE.
COPYRIGHT BODLEIAN LIBRARIES, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

One of the most arresting objects on display at the 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition, on until the end of March at the Science Museum in London as part of its “Illuminating India” programme, is the index to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, published in 1860. “No map in the world at that time,” an accompanying signboard reads, “could rival it for scale, detail and accuracy.” Hundreds of criss-crossing red and blue lines form a tight network of triangles within the index—each, the signboard says, “the sum of hundreds of distance and angle measurements.”

Another signboard nearby displays a small lithograph of men, all Indian, lugging around surveying equipment. The caption reads, “Thousands of British soldiers and Indian men lost their lives in completing the 70-year project.” Who were these men? Why did they die? We are not told. Nor are we told how the map fits into the history of cartography in India before and during British imperialism. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a single show that aspires to capture 5,000 years of Indian history. But it is not too much to ask of an exhibition pointedly dedicated to Indian scientific achievement that, while touting the trigonometrical survey, the exhibition credits such figures as Radhanath Sikdar, a Bengali mathematician whose immense contributions to the project included first calculating that what was later christened Mount Everest was the highest point on earth. Yet neither Sikdar nor the many other Indian surveyors and “calculators” who were part of the endeavour get any mention here at all.

One of imperialism’s legacies was to write the “native” out of her own history. This was an act of wilful forgetting, and, from the imperial standpoint, a crucial one—usurping all agency prepared the ground for telling the natives that they could not govern their land as well as the imperialists could. Now, decades after the fall of the British Empire, this position is unsustainable. “Illuminating India,” the Science Museum’s website says, “commemorates 70 years of Independence and is part of the British Council’s UK/India Year of Culture.” The science exhibition is billed as part of a season of “exhibitions and events that celebrates India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.” But how, today, do you celebrate history from the imperial period without celebrating imperialism itself? How do you remember what you had chosen to emphatically forget? How do you give agency back to those who were comprehensively stripped of it? This is a fundamental tension in many British museums (and increasingly, it appears, in British society: How can we be great again, without doing what we did the last time?). There is no set way to deal with the problem—but there are better approaches, and worse ones.

Sidin Vadukut is the author of Bombay Fever. He is a columnist and editor, and the UK correspondent for Mint.

Keywords: london photography colonial rule colonialism exhibition imperialism science museums
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