So, what’s an Ajeeb Ghar anyway?

Worm sepia

Ajeeb Ghar, n./əʤi:b ghər/
Strange House, Wonder House, Magic House, Cabinet of Curiosity
Etymology: ajeeb < Urdu, strange, wondrous, wonderful, anomalous + ghar < Sanskri, home, residence, location.
Synonyms: Ajaib ghar, Ajeeb khana. Jadu ghar

First introduced to English-speaking readers of literary fiction through Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the term Ajeeb Ghar continues to be used to refer to all museums in South Asia. The literal translation from the Urdu is Strange House or Wonder House.  But wonder and strange can have multiple meanings in the museum world.  The original and eponymous Ajeeb Ghar was the fabulous Lahore museum with which Kim opens, where Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard’s father) was curator. In Kim and other historical or literary accounts, Ajeeb Ghar was a magical – even wondrous – place where 18th and 19th century viewers encountered marvelous, astonishing things from around the world and across oceans, from royal palaces to everyday lives.

Because of its unique origins, colonial history, associations with place, continuing cultural resonance, and the fact that it straddles at least three ideas of a museum (physical, virtual and metaphoric), Ajeeb Ghar in the 21st century can mean any or all of the following:

  1. A cabinet of curiosities, or wunderkammer – which in 17th and 18th century Europe meant an encyclopedic collection or archive of strange objects and wonder-filled artifacts (natural, man-made, and artificial) put together to reflect a Renaissance-era microcosm, a theater of the world that mixes art and science, nature and culture, the marvelous and the odd, the foreign and the familiar.
  1. A lens, a sensibility, a mode of engagement, a way of seeing into that world of museum objects, exhibitions, and festivals through wonder, curiosity, and what Charles Wilson Peale famously called “rational amusement”: a form of enchanted looking in museums and at museum objects that connects science, art and ethnography with imagination, whimsy and delight.
  1. A place in the past, as well as a place of and for the past. A repository of the old-fashioned, the lost, the missing, the hidden, the invisible, the disappearing, the endangered, the handmade, the diverse, the forgotten, the ephemeral, the intangible, the past that should be safeguarded in the homogenizing race towards cultural globalization.
  1. A hope, a dream, a prayer for museological and archival futures. Contemporary museums around the world have never been more focused on safeguarding culture, whether through ‘documentation’ – preserving, saving, restoring, archiving our museum pasts and our intangible heritage to imagine better imagine futures; or through ‘giving back’ – the repatriation or redistribution of cultural property between colonial era pasts and the present, from the West (who engaged in some of these colonial wrongs) to the Rest (who were wronged), from the heritage-rich to their source communities and the have-nots, from the takers to the taken and taken-from.

In this 21st century blog avatar, Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder House will address all these elements, separately or together. Positioned somewhere between the idea of museum as temple and museum as forum, between heritage as noun and heritage as action verb, between the museological notions of wonder and resonance, Ajeeb Ghar will deal with ‘strange’ museum objects and ‘different’ cultural subjects in art, science and ethnographic museums. It will deal with curation and display in colonial archives and heritage collections. It will include festivals, stories, storytellers, art, artisans and craft (and everything to do with the ‘hand-made’). And it will address museum frictions and cultural heritage disputes, and how all  of them often tumble, pell mell, as they fall down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass in their search for wonder, curiosity, beauty, context, belonging, cultural identity, political engagement, moral meaning, and better material futures.

It is my hope that Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder House will serve as:

  • A hub – an arts adda in Hyderabad and elsewhere in India – where Asian museums and archival practices meet contemporary heritage policy, tangible and intangible
  • A space to discuss ways of seeing, looking, listening, curating and writing about museum objects through ‘familiar’ essays about ‘strange’ artifacts
  • A curatorial mantra or method inspired by Charles Vincent Peale’s 19th century ideal of ‘rational amusement’ in museums: historically informed, morally engaged, critically oriented but playful and poetic
  • A manifesto for social change and critical policy on archival pasts and museum futures; on the subject of decolonizing heritage archives; and how decolonization itself can – indeed, must – lead to transformative restitution, repatriation and reparation for past wrongs.

As the world shrinks, and as the cultural clock zig-zags across continents, history becomes heritage before it has a chance to be fully lived.  If we are to create lasting social change, its never too late to look backwards in order to leap ahead; to responsibly, ethically, mindfully, put the Past Forward.   Indeed, in museum Wonderland, (and with sincere apologies to the Walrus and the Carpenter, and especially to the Oysters who have been displaced here by Museums), one might even say, along with Lewis Carroll, that:

The time has come, the Keepers said
To talk of many things…
Of curiosity and looking glass(es)
Of cabinets and things
Of falling down the rabbit hole
Of whether Wonder sings.
But wait a bit, the Museums cried
Before we have our chat;
For some of us are fading
And none of us are fat.
Do we need to look forward
To save from dying out? 
Or are museums left well alone
So Wonder can leapfrog back

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