The Red Fort museum: small key to a big problem


back to issue

IN December 1911, on the occasion of the third Delhi Durbar, King George V and Queen Mary visited the Red Fort in Delhi where they performed various royal duties, including transcribing their names in a book which now lies in the Red Fort Archeological Museum. While a great deal is recorded about that historic day, not much is known about how the museum came into being on that occasion. It appears though that a small group of artefacts which had previously resided in the Naubat Khana since 1909 (now home to the War Memorial Museum) and the erstwhile Municipal Museum, Town Hall (founded 1868), were transferred to the Mumtaz Mahal pavilion in October 1911 where they founded a collection that remains there until the present day.

Until Indian independence, the collection grew steadily and came to encompass a variety of objects, many of which had fallen into the hands of local dealers in Delhi after the events of 1857. They include Mughal-period carved stone panels and firmans of the 17th century, calligraphy and paintings (mainly 19th century), metalwork objects, British period documents (some relating to the events of 1857), Chinese ceramics (celadon and blue and white porcelain), manuscripts and a few textiles. Some of the more notable pieces came from the Delhi based Hungarian dealer, Imre Shwaiger, partner of the well-known Bakliwal family of dealers. The post-independence growth of the collection was much slower, but it now rests at 1500 works of art and other objects.

Reconstructing the history of the museum is not easy as there are few records to turn to other than the registers for the objects. These do, however, form an important source of information. Registers are found at almost every Indian museum and record details about the objects and artefacts in the collection – description, attribution, provenance, inscriptions, condition and date of acquisition – among others. In a continuation of the medieval practice of copying manuscripts, registers in some Indian museums are hand copied in fresh versions when the old one wears out. Therefore, the registers used in the Red Fort today are a relatively new set based on previous ones, which likely survive somewhere in the fort. There also exists a catalogue of the Delhi Museum of Archaeology, published by the Archaeological Survey of India in Calcutta in 1926, which provides further information.

The museum consists today of six galleries in which objects are arranged to follow the unfolding of the history of Delhi during the Mughal and British periods. While it is not entirely clear who was responsible for establishing this organizing principle or creating the intellectual content, the overall logic of the galleries is sound. The Mughals are introduced in the first couple of spaces through a combination of Mughal period and later artefacts. Next, a gallery is devoted to Chinese export ceramics from the 17th to late 19th centuries, including an important celadon dish containing an ownership inscription of Shah Shuja. A further gallery displays paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Textiles and arms are presented in an adjoining space. The final gallery is devoted to Bahadur Shah Zafar and the relics from the Mutiny of 1857.


So far, all that has been described may sound perfectly reasonable. But the bitter truth is that any merits of the Red Fort Museum are entirely eclipsed by the appallingly poor condition of the artefacts and the dismal condition of the museum display, caused by neglect and mismanagement that go back for decades. Visitors to the museum, consisting of tourists from around the world, local citizens and travellers from the nearby railway station, are led through a truly depressing visual experience, symptomatic of a deep malaise affecting almost all the public museums of the country.

Interior view of Red Fort Museum.

Here works on paper, which have never been taken off view, have turned into darkened crisps under glaring lights, including a drawing of a fish by the Mughal master, Ustad Mansur. Textiles, among them a rare Sultanate period talismanic shirt, have almost entirely faded away. Another one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, thankfully survives in good condition. Books and manuscripts are pressed vertically against the wall, the pressure often resulting in breakage. The decoration on metal work objects can hardly be discerned, including the inlay on bidri works or the etchings and inscriptions on a set of scientific instruments of the Humayun period. Dust has seeped into the display cases, covering the objects with a grungy film, and crudely mounted metal labels present information about the works which often is just plain wrong.

Poor condition of Ustad Mansur painting.

The slow demise of objects in the galleries can unfortunately become rapid if they are sent to the nearby conservation lab. There they receive enthusiastic but insensitive treatment. For example, the current vogue for systematically adhering Japanese paper on both sides of a page, practiced indiscriminately in many conservation labs in India, results in the face of the page being completely covered by a semi-opaque veil, which stabilizes but obscures its details. Though paintings are remounted in acid free mats, these are primitive in design and features. As a result, the objects’ best chance for survival is in the storeroom; some works which have never been displayed are in slightly better condition than their gallery counterparts. However, here too creeping mould and fungus spreads through folios lying in drawers, even if they are spared the effects of light damage.


Far more seriously, the entire site of the Red Fort is in acute distress; its present condition hardly meriting its World Heritage Status. Damage and ruin, too much to list here, and beyond the scope of this present article, can be observed everywhere. The destruction of the masterful Scales of Justice jali screen in the Khas Mahal, the crude restoration work of the Rang Mahal, the disarray of the grounds, and the effect of violent interventions with mechanical drills on the soft sandstone of the buildings are just a few worth mentioning. As in so many Archaeological Survey of India properties, the museum is housed within the historic structures, so a relationship between the two is inevitable.


However slow, change might be in the offing, not just for the museum but for the Red Fort as a whole. The army has vacated – it had been there since 1857 – and a conservation master plan for the site has been developed. Among its many proposals is to move the museums presently housed in the 17th century buildings (the Mumtaz Mahal and Naubat Khana), into the 19th century barracks.

Poor state of Red Fort building.

So an opportunity lies ahead for the Ministry of Culture and the ASI to take advantage of this potential move to set up a proper museum from scratch. Even for a small collection and a relatively small building, the challenge is daunting: to adapt a 19th century building for museum function – with security, climate control, access, storerooms, lighting and other infrastructure. Further, to concurrently develop a concept and didactic programme for the gallery; evolve a sensible design, including of course display cases that can be easily built; institute a digital cataloguing system that can help manage the collection; and critically, train staff who can remain committed to maintaining the museum and upholding correct museum practices of the international museum community.


Expand this simple set of challenges 300-fold and you will get a sense of the scale of the problem for the country’s museum sector. What the sector needs can be summed up in a word – professionalization – a goal ultimately for the Ministry of Culture to advance. I could have provided a long to-do list of suggestions here, but such lists already exist in the ministry. Over the years, it has also been given many names of candidates to appoint in leadership positions, and ways in which to enthuse and retrain the existing cadre of ASI officials and others. In recent years, the ministry has been trying different strategies – from initiating private-public partnerships to signing MOUs with international museums. But as long as the Ministry of Culture is not given the requisite status and support (by government and citizens alike) as one of the most important arms of government and a key to the quality of life and values of the people, it will be unable to improve its museums and the ASI which come under its jurisdiction.


The reinvention of the Red Fort museum has the potential to help bring India’s public sector museums in line with international museum standards, if properly developed. I first entered the project as an observer and slowly grew into the role of a partner. My immediate task is to focus on the collection itself – salvaging what can be saved and publishing it in partnership with the ASI. Later, depending on how things develop, we hope to work on the museum development and relocation.

Despite some expected bureaucratic hurdles my experience within the system has been good so far. I have been welcomed by the ASI, by the officials at the Red Fort and by the Ministry of Culture, reflective of a genuine commitment and interest. And I have interacted with some very good people within the system, especially at the lowest levels. For example, the attendant at the museum, despite his lack of formal training and education, is one person who both knows the collection and cares for it. Once made aware of the importance of separating and wrapping each painting in the storage drawer in its own acid-free sheet of paper, he worked all weekend on his own initiative to get the job done by Monday morning. That effort in turn inspired others on the team, proving that good actions can lead to a virtuous cycle.

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ganjifa playing cards.

A successful pilot project within the government system has the potential to initiate greater change, as practical solutions are learned and results made visible. That is our hope with this little project. Looking more widely one draws inspiration from the many success stories of other museums around the country (private and government) – Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Bombay; Mehrangarh Fort Museum, Jodhpur; Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi; Sanskriti Museum, Delhi; Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, to name a few. Also to be noted are the independent professionals who are playing an important role, such as Eka Curatorial, Delhi. The steadfast publication activity of art books by publishers such as Mapin, Roli, Bookbuilder and others has also kept a steady beacon alight.


The heart of a museum is its collection, a fact far too often ignored by everyone, even those who are well meaning. Running a museum is in many ways like running a household, requiring practical sense and daily commitment. Obviously on a macro-level a complex interplay of policy development, professional training, financial backing and systemic change matter. But on the ground, one must not underestimate the importance of simple and practical solutions that cannot be decreed by law, but instead evolve through human interaction, correct training and common sense. Museums do not need rocket scientists to run them; they need practical and energetic people who understand that their job is to look after the artefacts.


Opening a dusty trunk with my ASI colleagues one day we found a moth-eaten velvet box containing a group of charmingly painted round ganjifa playing cards made of ivory. We knew they were special the moment we saw them, and searched through the Registers for more information. There it was: ‘Ivory Playing Cards belonging to Bahadur Shah Zafar, last Mughal emperor of India, brought from the Zafar Mahal.’ That was a special moment for our team, the kind of reward that is most meaningful. One can never underestimate the magic of discovering unknown treasures in a storeroom and their power to inspire those who work with them.


Postscript: Since the writing of this essay, this project has stalled, possibly due to disruptions caused by the election process. The author is hopeful that the Ministry of Culture will now reactivate it without further delay.