Politics and Aesthetics of the National Museums in South Asia

Yih-chuen Liao

The South Asian countries in the western Indian Ocean littoral have shared a variety of common heritage through the ancient maritime trade. This shared heritage is manifested in its diverse connections of religions, ethnic groups, settlers, cultures and history in this region. In the past decade, South Asia has gained much more attention from the global community through its growing international influence accompanied by the rising political and economic power. While the geopolitical framework in South Asia has been sufficiently scrutinized in the historical and contemporary context, the analysis on how South Asian countries define their national identity through the museological practice and cultural policies has been rather scarce.  Social science and humanities theorists have commonly identified museums as “institutions of power” as described by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities (163). The exhibitions in museums reflect social relations and categories, demonstrate soft power, and have the cultural legitimacy to interpret aesthetics, lifestyle, and values.  At the same time, museum visits patroned by the increasing South Asian urban elites also “create rituals of citizenship” (Carol Duncan 1991; Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach 1980).

The construction and transformation of South Asian identities should be closely examined in the cultural, political, and historical context. Such work is crucial for understanding the social and cultural implications of how South Asian national museums present South Asian art to the public and make it accessible to the audience, especially because South Asian societies are largely divided by various ethnic, religious, social and racial groups which claim their respective cultural equity with growing awareness. As a result, the cultural pluralism has become a pressing issue for the current South Asian governments on how the image and identity of their country should be presented through the narratives of the national museums with the cultural assumptions underlying museum exhibitions. In order to understand these interactions between politics, culture, pluralism, and identity, there is yet a need of a holistic approach to investigate the articulation of institutionalized South Asian art and its perception as a mark of socio-cultural identity as a category through the politics and aesthetics of the national museums in South Asia in the contemporary settings.