Looking after Ganesh
Looking after Ganesh: respecting the gods and sharing Hindu culture
Modern museums are looking for ways to forge meaningful community relationships, and to reflect the contemporary relevance of the objects in their care. RAMM has an extensive collection from around the world, predominantly acquired and donated by people with connections to Exeter and South West England. Some visitors find it hard to relate to displays in the World Cultures gallery, and perspectives from Devon residents who know about the original cultures of objects can illuminate their stories for everyone. Co-created events and exhibitions show how diverse populations are valued by the museum and the region.
Although the quality of the World Cultures collection is recognised globally, the museum has far more information about the (predominantly European) donors and collectors than it does about the people who made them in and from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Pacific. Internationally, museums are looking for ways to acknowledge their own colonial history, initiate debate and promote less-heard voices.
One of the most iconic objects on display at RAMM is a large statue of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh, brought to Devon by a British judge who served in India in the 1860s and 1870s. RAMM has consulted south Asian families in the past, inviting responses to objects, and incorporating new information into displays and databases. The Hindu Community Centre has participated in community projects, and provided a platform to share stories with the wider public. On occasion, the museum been challenged for the 19th-century origins and tones of its classification system.
Exeter Hindu Cultural Centre is a thriving group, reaching more than 350 households around the West Country. Members gather monthly to celebrate festivals, pass on traditions to the younger generations, and work towards creating a dedicated temple in the region.
RAMM reached out to Exeter Hindu Cultural Centre when Ganesh was being removed from the gallery during improvements to the building. The museum wanted to consult over his display, and celebrate his return with due respect. Members of the Hindu Cultural Centre donated a permanent garland to adorn Ganesh, provided a copy of the sacred book (Bhagavad Gita), and hand-hemmed a brightly coloured, sparkling cloth for his plinth. Members advised on a respectful height to view the deity, and requested a donations box to enable practising Hindus to be generous in his presence.
RAMM’s conservation policy is rigorous but progressive. It places high importance on community engagement and accepts the risk that objects’ condition will decline over time. Around 100 Hindus travelled from as far afield as Bristol and Plymouth to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi in September 2018 – the deity’s birthday – and to welcome him back into the gallery with prayers and blessings.
When a community research project created a film of alternative stories around Ganesh, RAMM highlighted it online and to gallery visitors. Community members joined RAMM staff as VIP hosts for a Royal Visit to celebrate the museum’s 150th birthday.
RAMM and Exeter Hindu Cultural Centre fulfilled a longheld joint ambition to co-host a public celebration of Diwali – the Festival of Lights – in 2019. More than 400 guests filled the galleries for Bollywood-bhangra band, dancing, food and a garland-making activity. Ganesh is one of the most important Hindu deities. As the remover of obstacles, prayers to him traditionally form part of many festivals and new beginnings.
As part of its ethos of Home to a Million Thoughts, RAMM has attempted to give voice to diverse perspectives in the galleries, to listen to constructive criticism, and to develop partnerships based on respect.
The 2019 celebration of Diwali was a shared experience for visitors of all ages, across cultures. Like the 2018 prayers in the gallery around Ganesh, the museum invited the Hindu Cultural Centre community to take over the space and create the atmosphere. The building resonated with new sounds, flavours and styles. First-time visitors included members of a variety of communities of other faiths and cultures, invited to share the food and celebration.
What did people say?
“Kudos to you guys. You have opened your doors and you have started building bridges between the faith community and the museum…. It will be a learning experience for the new generation as well.”
“I was born in Uganda, and moved to Totnes recently from Birmingham… It’s so impressive to see how you have displayed Ganesh here. For us, these gods are alive once they have been worshipped.”
RAMM visitor to Diwali celebration
“The entertainment fitted perfectly with the ambience of the museum.… the food was yummy and the museum’s very own Shree Ganeshji was present to bless and adorn the occasion.”
Hindu Cultural Centre member
“I grew up in the north of England in a very racially tense atmosphere. This is what was missing – that invitation to join in and share cultures. My parents are racist. It’s moved me almost to tears a couple of times today, to be able to bring my daughter to something like this.”
RAMM visitor to Diwali celebration
“We have deliberately made this display [of Ganesh] so the glass can be removed when the community comes. We’ll allow fresh flowers, and we very much want people to feel that he is part of the celebration and not just in a case where you can’t engage with him. Many conservators are very keen to preserve objects and control their use. My feeling is that the use of an object is all part of its history. We are not conserving just a thing; we are conserving a way of using it. We are conserving a whole way of life around that object.”
Lead RAMM conservator
RAMM hopes to incorporate more voices into gallery interpretation through films. The museum plans to welcome Hindu Cultural Centre members as regular explainers to the public, in a new kind of volunteer programme with the commitment of a community rather than an individual. RAMM and Exeter Hindu Cultural Centre are looking to develop festival celebrations that will ensure opportunities for Ganesh to be worshipped and surrounded by the people who care most about him.
Engagement Officer, RAMM
T 01392 265305
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