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The Train To Museums

Poornima Sardana


I do not know when was the last time you travelled by the train, to a place you had been longing to reach. I do not know if you remember how it might be to feel the wind on your face when the Nilgiri mountain train turns on a curve. And I wonder if you recall the anticipation of rain when traversing along the coastline in Tejas Express.

Perhaps none of these are familiar to you, yet they might remind you of something that seems deeply familiar.

I am not aware if you have memories of sharing food and anecdotes with fellow travellers who until then were strangers, but not anymore. And whether you had learnt something extraordinary about life in seemingly ordinary conversations on your way to somewhere. But if I urge you to remember, would you find the flavors in your mouth and the scents in the air? What was that place called? Do you remember the names of all the stations you crossed? How did one station sound any different from the other? How many dialects, how many ways of living were passing by?

I do not know if the thought of the train takes you back in time or causes you to leap ahead in your dreams, whether it makes you want to sing or reflect in solitude. But I would like to know. Do you know where is it that you want to reach?

Perhaps we could explore together, at the National Rail Museum in Chanakyapuri, Delhi, where not only do we learn about the different engines and trains, but also the people and cultures that used them; the stories that have traveled across time and space to touch our lives in myriads of ways.

I am a museum professional and I work in museums because I relish the chances of meeting someone I might otherwise never meet. It could be the weaver’s tales from North-eastern India or songs about a folk deity protecting justice in Himachal; It could be the potter from Indus Valley Civilization or the scientist studying genes in another part of the world; It could be a philosopher’s meditation or the colonial gaze, it could be N. Rajam’s music or mythical tales; I have often found in museums ways of thinking that offer many perspectives and vantage points from which we can seek to understand the world and ourselves a little more. With each visit inside a museum, the outside seems a little less alien, a bit more recognizable. With each visit to the museum, we also make place for self introspection, the chance to know our own selves better.

Around six years ago, when I was studying my Masters in New York City, I used to volunteer at the Rubin Museums of Himalayan Asian Art. One evening, we were organizing an event at the museum and I was in-charge of a table where people were to sit and color. Considering the many other activities that were offered, I did not expect a lot of people to participate in coloring, but they did. We had to keep adding more tables to be able to accommodate everyone. One visitor arrived very late. I noticed his walk, his leather jacket, his boots, tattoos and his beard. And I immediately stereotyped him. I thought he would dislike what we were doing or find it boring. He took the colors from me and sat down next to me. As he colored like a child, he kept saying, “I had no idea, all I needed today was this.” I had no idea as well. I have heard similar things from people who participated in our improv show at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum and the children who played music along with the folk musicians in Jaipur. They had no idea that it would make them experience such abundance of emotions and possibilities.

In some ways, a visit to a museum is indeed like a long journey by train. We meet and receive so much more than what took us there in the first place. We gain insight into the universal experiences of being a human, and alight with a greater sense of belonging amidst all our differences. Very often in museums I have found a sense of home. Some time back I was shivering in the city of London, cold and damp, difficult to say the least. I was running late for a meeting and as I rushed for my underground train, a sense of calm engulfed me. I felt warm, like I do with ginger tea. For in the train were those familiar seat cushions that I had experienced in the London Transport Museum years ago. I sat down on the seat and I was no more an alien trying to survive in hostile conditions, I was just another human with my own vulnerabilities, with a family I love, with an aspiration I wish to fulfill, and a stomach that was grumbling for food. I was one with the crowd, and their stories that I had heard in the museum. Somehow that offered to me the very consolation I needed to persevere through the day. The consolation of familiarity, the consolation of connectedness in human experiences, the consolation of belonging, of home even when we are far. I hope to bring some of these stories to you, one station at a time.

Poornima Sardana is a Fulbright-Nehru alumna who works as an independent museum consultant designing museum strategy for education, development and community engagement. She is currently researching and experimenting on museums’ contribution to society’s well-being, particularly emotional. For this purpose, she is working towards her consultancy Museums Of Hope and has co-founded the Museums Mazzedaar Collective. She also hosts the podcast Duniya Museums Kee. poornimasardana@gmail.com


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