At a time, when the Central and State governments are cold-shouldering public interest in history, ignoring their museums and allocating paltry funds for protecting the precious collections in them, Bihar has taken up an ambitious and well thought-out project to rejuvenate and rebuild its crown jewel — the Patna Museum.
Acting quietly, the State government conducted an international competition that brought in the best talent from around the world — including the architects involved in rebuilding the World Trade Center — to design a Rs. 400-crore new museum in Patna. Maki and Associates, a Tokyo-based architecture firm, and its Indian partner Opolis have been chosen.
The 2,000-year-old Didarganj Yakshi, one of the most popular and iconic sculptures in India, would remain the star exhibit in the new museum, but with a difference. The Yakshi will receive the well-designed display it deserves. Along with it, the Lohanipur Tirthankara — the earliest extant example of Jaina art — Buddhist bronzes from Nalanda, terracottas from Bodh Gaya, the Mauryan lion head and other precious artefacts would also move to the much-improved museum, which will be completed in 2015.
The most impressive feature so far is the approach adopted by the Bihar government. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar neither waited for assistance from the Union Ministry of Culture, which is still sleeping on the year-old B.N. Goswamy Committee's report on modernising Indian museums, nor did he look to cultural tsars from Delhi for directions.
Last year, after deciding to build a new museum, the State appointed Lord Cultural Resources, a Canadian museum planning consultant, to advise it. Subsequently, a two-stage international competition was announced, and a seven-member jury, including Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was constituted. Of the 26 entries received in the first stage, five renowned design firms were short-listed. These included Snøhetta and Studio Daniel Libeskind, the two design firms involved in rebuilding the World Trade Center in New York.
“We have worked in 50 countries and have been museum consultants for more than three decades. Working in Bihar has been a very positive experience. The State government has pioneered a process that is professional and refreshing,” said Batul Raaj Mehta, senior consultant and India head of Lord Cultural Resources. “In Bihar, as master planners, we have advised the government on the conceptualisation of the museum, evolved a business plan, and worked on financial and human resource deployment. This comprehensive planning will lead to a museum of international standards that will be relevant to Bihar,” she added.
Of the nearly 1,000 museums in the country, 90 per cent are state-run. The visitor experience in these old museums, including the prestigious National Museum in Delhi, has been poor, and the practices they adopted are way below global standards.
In this context, the Patna project, along with another proposed museum, the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMOMA), has created great excitement and hope among heritage lovers. These two proposed museums are expected to set new benchmarks in museum experience in the country and turn around government apathy to cultural facilities.
The KMOMA will be built at a cost of Rs. 410 crore, and is designed by Herzog & de Meuron, an international architecture firm known for its designs for the Tate Modern, London, and the National Stadium, Beijing.
What makes Bihar stand out is that while the KMOMA is a tripartite venture among the government of West Bengal, the government of India and the private sector, the new Patna Museum is an entirely State initiative. It has also moved at a professional pace, while the KMOMA has been in the making for four years.
The only aberration has been that the Bihar government has overruled the design jury's recommendation to award the project to the U.K.-based design firm, Foster and Partners.
“While all the five designs were equally competitive, we [the State government] had to give due weight to financial considerations after the presentations and the jury selection,” explained Anjani Kumar Singh, Principal Secretary (Art & Culture), and Nodal Officer, Bihar International Museum.
Government sources told The Hindu that of the two finally short-listed firms, one had quoted 30 per cent of the building cost in consultation fee and the other charged only half of it. The government, it appears, chose the one that was competitively priced.
(With inputs from Shoumojit Banerjee in Patna)