Partition Museum Amritsar ensures India's sundering won't be forgotten, 70 years on

A little over 32 km from Wagah, in Amritsar, stands a memorial to the Partition of India — a sundering that left 12 million people displaced, and nearly two million dead. The Partition Museum Amritsar collects personal histories, artefacts and archival records that tell the story of the Partition, and after opening a part of the institution to the public in October 2016, is ready for its final launch on 17 August.

The date of its launch marks the 70th anniversary of Partition. Set up by the Arts and Culture Heritage Trust (headed by Lady Kishwar Desai), the Partition Museum now occupies some 17,000 square feet in the recently restored, historic Town Hall building in Amritsar.

The Partition of India displaced 12 million people, and left nearly two million dead. Image via Facebook/Partition Museum Amritsar

The Partition of India displaced 12 million people, and left nearly two million dead. Image via Facebook/Partition Museum Amritsar

Mallika Ahluwalia, CEO of the Partition Museum Amritsar, spoke with Firstpost about what's in store for the institution:

Since the Partition Museum partially opened in October 2016, what have been some of its major milestones, and what has the response from visitors been like? 

We have had an overwhelming response from visitors. So many have written very heartfelt letters to us after their visits, and reached out to us to share their families’ stories. Since launching, some 50,000 visitors came to the Museum, which was a major milestone for us. We also hosted two cultural events at the Museum, with both Gulzar sa’ab and the Begum Jaan team coming to the Museum.

We’ve had all kinds of visitors — from local families affected by Partition, to local government like police officers or sanitation workers, to lots of school children from around the city and the country, and also the domestic and international tourists who have to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple.

AMRITSAR, INDIA - OCTOBER 25: The Town Hall in Amritsar that houses the Partition Museum on October 25, 2016 in Amritsar, India. A newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar revisits the trauma of displacement, with optimism for a better future. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Town Hall in Amritsar that houses the Partition Museum. A newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar revisits the trauma of displacement, with optimism for a better future. Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

What is in store when the second and final phase of the PMA opens on 17 August? What are some of the new features that visitors will be able to see/experience? 

When we opened in October 2016, we had a curtain raiser exhibition open — this was four rooms. However, now we open the entire gallery — some 17,000 square feet of space.

We had suggested to the Government of Punjab, and they have accepted our suggestion, that 17 August should be marked as Partition Remembrance Day. Because this was the day that 70 years ago the borders were actually announced. Therefore, every year going forward this will be marked to remember all those millions impacted. This year we will be having a beautiful day-long commemoration event at the Museum, with poetry, music, panel discussions, and lots of memories. We encourage people from around the country to join us to mark this day, especially Partition families.

The Museum uses multiple different mediums to create a world-class engaging experience for the visitor. This includes oral histories playing on video, a soundscape in each gallery, original artefacts donated by refugees, newspapers and magazines, photographs showing the migration and camps, letters written by refugees, government documents, and especially created art installations.

What we have tried to do is create an immersive experience — where the visitor can come and get a multi-sensory experience of what Partition meant for all those millions of people who were impacted. It will be quite different from other Museums in India because a strong narrative is present through-out the Museum, so the visitor goes on a journey through time.

Visitors may especially like the installations — but I won’t say more about these, people should come and see! Our Tree of Hope was very popular in the last Museum, where thousands upon thousands of people ‘greened the Tree’ with their messages of love and peace.

AMRITSAR, INDIA - OCTOBER 24: A view of newly inaugurated Partition Museum on October 24, 2016 in Amritsar, India. A newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar revisits the trauma of displacement, with optimism for a better future. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A view of the 'Tree of Hope' at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Before the Partition Museum Amritsar, there had never been a dedicated memorial to the Partition, an event that shaped the histories of two nations in such a profound way. Why do you think there has been this lack?

We are losing the generation that witnessed Partition — and 70 years after the event there was no museum or memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped so many millions, and indeed that continues to shape us as individuals, families, communities and a nation.

The lack of a Partition Museum is particularly stark when one looks around the world to see how other major international events have all been memorialised — 9/11 had a Museum within a few years of the event. The Partition remains the largest mass migration in human history anywhere in the world, yet the stories of those millions who lost homes or loved ones remains unheard.

My view is that in the immediate aftermath of Partition, it was too raw to remember, but also that given the deep economic loss due to losing one’s home and livelihoods, there was a sense that one had to just move on and ensure a better life for one’s children however one could. As time passed, I think the space for the Museum was created — and now the generation that is left wants their story to be heard, they say that a burden is lifting off them that finally there is a space that acknowledges what they went through.

AMRITSAR, INDIA - OCTOBER 24: Lady Kishwar Desai during the Partition Museum inauguration, on October 24, 2016 in Amritsar, India. A newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar revisits the trauma of displacement, with optimism for a better future. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Lady Kishwar Desai during the Partition Museum's partial inauguration in October 2016 in Amritsar. Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

When the Partition Museum Project was first conceptualised, what was the task ahead for the Arts and Culture Heritage Trust? What were some of the considerations that guided how the Partition Museum Amritsar took shape?

All four founders, of which I am one, come from Partition families. The Museum was founded by us because of a very stark realisation that we were losing the generation that had witnessed Partition, as I said earlier. Given the age of Partition survivors, we felt it was very important, that in their lifetime, as many of that generation who are with us, can know that their experience has been heard and acknowledged.

When we started two-and-a-half years ago, we had thought that it would take us much, much longer to get the Museum up. But we just received such an outpouring of support from every quarter, that we were able to move much more quickly.

We were very clear early on that our main goal was to create this as a People’s Museum, and that focus on telling the stories of all the millions of families has been a guiding force throughout the Museum. We often speak of our Museum as one of love, loss and longing — and those sentiments have also guided us in our journey to build this.

Entrance corridor. Image courtesy Partition Museum Amritsar

Entrance corridor. Image courtesy Partition Museum Amritsar

Students examine the Boundary Commission Proposal. Image courtesy Partition Museum Amritsar

Students examine the Boundary Commission Proposal. Image courtesy Partition Museum Amritsar

What does the Partition Museum Project hope to contribute to the narrative around Partition?

Where Partition has been discussed, it is largely at the macro-level of nation-states. As a Museum, we are therefore, working to set this up as a People's Museum to pay tribute to all those impacted, and to give voice to their experiences.

As seen in the recent Museum of Memories project with Culture Lab, the participatory nature of the Partition Museum Amritsar is what makes it unique, especially in terms of the texture, immediacy and quality of the 'day-to-day' it can provide to an otherwise sweeping narrative that is now at some distance from us... 

The Partition Museum is being set up as a People's Museum. Our main objective is to tell the stories of those millions of people who were impacted. We are using people's own voices through oral histories, their personal artefacts, their letters, photographs and documents to tell history. For example, many galleries contain objects that refugees carried with them when they travelled; some items that have been donated to us include a phulkari coat that someone carried because it was their most prized possession, and a water pot that helped a family gather water during their time at a camp. Each of these objects tells the experience of the family more poignantly and fully than any history textbook ever could.

Because we are a People's Museum, using people's own voices was very important, so you hear history first-hand from someone who lived through it. It helps create a space for all those impacted to have their stories heard and acknowledged.

What is in store for the Partition Museum, after this final phase is complete? 

Our project continues to scale up constantly. We hope to create a large, publicly accessible archive, so that people can come and listen to oral histories at the Museum, access a comprehensive collection of research documents at the Museum. Maybe in 15 years, someone will be able to hear their great- grandmother's voice when they otherwise wouldn't have, or someone might find a missing relative through our video archives? And someone might do further research or make art based on our library?

We also hope to continue to do a number of traveling exhibitions. Given the age of Partition survivors, not everyone can come to the Museum physically, so we are keen to take the Museum to them.

Visit www.partitionmuseum.org for more information


Published Date: Aug 12, 2017 11:24 am | Updated Date: Aug 12, 2017 11:26 am


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