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Museum of Material Memory: What much-loved objects can tell us about the lived past

“Medals carry an honour reserved for bravery and courage, and using that as my starting point, I embarked on a quest to unearth the story of a grandfather I knew so little about.”

These are the words of Arjun Guleria, who chanced upon five medals in a rectangular wooden box tucked away in an obscure corner of his grandmother's house. The box opened up a world of discovery for Arjun, who learned that his grandfather had served the Indian army in far-flung Quetta, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and the Persian Gulf. For Arjun, it was pure joy being introduced to the great person his grandfather was, all through the medals that he had happened to find. “It is absolutely fascinating to imagine him travelling across the world, fighting wars in foreign lands to protect those he might not otherwise have any connection to beyond humanity. What a rich life and wealth of experiences to be gained in a world before globalisation!” he said.

The Museum of Material Memory reiterates the emotional value of passing on a legacy through an object seeped in memories of the past

The Museum of Material Memory reiterates the emotional value of passing on a legacy through an object seeped in memories of the past

Arjun is one of several who have contributed to the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent. The online archive traces family history and social ethnography through histories of people, families and objects of antiquity, such as heirlooms and collectibles. The objects are all from or before the 1970s, and include ostensibly ordinary items like love letters, cups, religious idols, a surmedaani, anklets, a typewriter, a lock, a briefcase and a ring.

Through a storytelling format, generational narratives about the tradition, culture, customs, conventions, habits, language, society, geography and history of the Indian subcontinent are revealed. The concept reiterates the emotional value of passing on a legacy through an object seeped in memories of the past.

“My grandparents reached Delhi separately with their families in 1947 as refugees, but their love story had begun long before that. They had met in Bahawalpur, a city located in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan.”

(Above) Dina Nath Kapur. The Museum of Material Memory thrives on contributions from people from all over the world

(Above) Dina Nath Kapur. The Museum of Material Memory thrives on contributions from people from all over the world

The story of Neha Berry’s grandparents involves a ‘token of love’ — a ring — that could not be presented due to the horrors of Partition. Neha's grandfather later got himself a good job and moved out of the refugee camp. He finally proposed to her grandmother with the ring. It symbolises Neha's first understanding of love. “Every time I look at it, I remember them and their simple, unaffected, long-lasting love for each other,” she said.

The brainchild of Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra, the project thrives on contributions from people from all over the world. The primary aim is to preserve material memory infused within objects and promote its appreciation as a crucial resource in the understanding of culture and civilisation. While Navdha comes from a digital communications background, Aanchal is an oral historian who recently authored Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory (HarperCollins 2017).

Says Aanchal, "The purpose of the museum is to create an accessible archive of material ethnography, a collection of objects that can tell the history of the subcontinent through the ways in which people develop relationships with their ‘things’. Something as mundane as a grandmother’s Singer sewing machine or a grandfather’s fountain pen can act as reservoirs of memory and open up the terrain of family history. By writing about the things that belonged to our ancestors, children and grandchildren can find tangible links into their pasts and feel closer to people they might have not otherwise known. It's an emotional and an educational exercise into excavating personal histories through material belongings.”

The museum's primary aim is to preserve material memory infused within objects

The museum's primary aim is to preserve material memory infused within objects

Aanchal and Navdha are using new-age technology, such as social media, Instagram in particular, to spread the word and share the stories with the world. “It is absolutely overwhelming when someone replies to a story with how their grandmother had the same object and they saw it in their childhood but they didn't know what it was, or when someone tells us how this is the first time they actually sat down and interacted with their grandparents,” says Navdha. The exercise has shown her how objects transcend cultures and religions and actually signify how we share certain parts of our histories.

The younger generation from India and Pakistan that knows little about the other are talking about objects with one other — objects that have shared histories between the two countries, without it being an 'Indian' or 'Pakistani' object. Thus, by connecting people from different countries and bringing them together into a dialogue, everyday objects are transcending nationalistic or jingoistic narratives to emerge as fountainheads for shared memory.

It's an emotional and an educational exercise into excavating personal histories through material belongings

It's an emotional and an educational exercise into excavating personal histories through material belongings

Some of the upcoming stories on the website include a glove belonging to the mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, the first page of the Daily Milap Newspaper (dated 6 October 1930) showcasing the judgement of the Lahore Conspiracy case, a century-old horseshoe, Dr Manohar Singh Chadha's war journal from 1940-1941 about his time spent in North Africa with the Allied troops during World War II, and a 1947 menu card from RMS Queen Mary belonging to the art historian Partha Mitter.

Says Aanchal, “Our aim is to build such an organic submission-based archive so that we can celebrate the stories of objects that populate our lives and infuse them with their rightful importance.” To contribute, one needs to fill up a submission form on the website that asks for as many details of the object, covering parameters such as its origin, owner, time period/date, physicality and memory attached to it. One can also upload up to five high-resolution images of the object.


Updated Date: Nov 04, 2017 11:07 AM

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