I am a cultural sociologist of medicine and science, museum curator, and heritage policy activist, not necessarily in that order but sometimes all at once. I write, research, teach, curate, and edit for a living on topics that range from the history of Ayurveda, Yoga, and botanical art to museum practices such as the decolonization of heritage archives and music repatriation. I’m also obsessed about archives in art and science, and sometimes these disparate interests happily merge as in my recently guest-edited Marg special issue: The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica. Or my role as academic advisor for Phytopia — a pioneering digital exhibition on plants organised by the Science Gallery Bengaluru.
I’ve done this writing and curating oftentimes as a Fellow (first as part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife’s wonderful Theorizing Cultural Heritage program; later at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art and the Smithsonian Rare Book Libraries) and sometimes as an independent researcher, but always in affiliation with a museum, archive, collection, or gallery. As a result, my curatorial experience has included working on a variety of DC-based exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery (Yoga: The Art of Transformation), the National Library of Medicine (Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body ) or Provisions Library (The Innocents, India Unbound!), more recently in Hyderabad at the Salar Jung museum (How Strong the Breeze) and in 2017, at the extraordinary Wellcome Library (Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Medicine), a gold standard for ajeebghars if there was one.
Through this curatorial process and especially since 2005 when I completed my post-doctoral museum studies degree at GWU, I have become increasingly fascinated with museums and archives themselves as institutions — as collections of things to think with and those that provoke; and of things that delight or amuse; as physical sites of remembrance and as virtual or metaphoric ones; as cabinets for the curious and as politically-charged embodiments of national, civic or local identity; as temples and forums, or as playgrounds and pedagogical tools.
When my teaching career took me to the University of Hyderabad in 2014 as visiting professor, I found myself (for a host of reasons and projects) wanting to stay back in India and work with local medical and botanical archives. After I got a India Foundation for the Arts grant to document botanical art traditions in Company gardens, I have now begun to divide my time and seasons between Hyderabad and Washington DC. This nomadic life has its joys and its drawbacks, but the one realization I’ve had is while ‘home’ has become an increasingly nebulous concept, and my beloved gardens difficult to maintain from across the pond, museums and archives around the world have become my touchstones, anchors and guiding lights. My own personal Ajeeb ghars, my ethnographic Wonder Houses. Whether its the Wellcome Library’s astonishing collection of iconographic prints and manuscripts, or Hyderabad’s own Health museum and Tribal museum; the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center or the newly ‘bifurcating’ A.P. State Archives, they each have something to say and a cultural story to tell (and sometimes, to save). It is my great pleasure and calling to try and tell some of these tales; to call attention to these collections of things, the people who run them, and why, how, and where one can keep more of them alive and together in our increasingly fragmented world.
I spent the summer of 2015 enjoying DC’s many Ajeeb Ghars, big and small, while I burrowed through the special collections at the Smithsonian Libraries (as Baird Fellow, where I researched the print history of yogis and fakirs) and the Library of Congress (as Parsons Fellow, where I did the same with early film). In 2016, at the Wellcome and Kew Gardens Libraries, I researched East India Company School botanical art and garden archives. And in 2017, while I’ve continued research at the Wellcome Library, I’ve also been curatorial advisor for an exhibition — Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine — that tells the story of Wellcome’s historical collection on India through the lens of newly unearthed correspondence with their Indian collector, Paira Mall. I spent the summer of 2018 in Leiden at the wonderful Research Center for Material Culture affiliated with the Museum Volkenkunde, tracing the ethnographic roots of a 17th century Dutch botanical: the Hortus Malabaricus. And for most of 2019 and 2020, I will be working on a book, provisionally titled The Jangala Books, that pulls all of these worlds together. 21st century Ajeeb Ghars and collections, all of them, modern curiosity cabinets and wonder-houses for our anxious age.
Update: My writing and heritage activist career got two happy fillips in recent months. The first: in December 2021, I was finally able to get to Sangam House as a writing resident; a long-standing dream (and it was glorious! I worked on the beginnings of an archivally informed set of ‘familiar essays’ that I’m called Hortus Malabaricus: A Thrice Told Tale, as part of a larger project provisionally titled The Jangala Books. Where I met and worked alongside – at the idyllic Jamun – some amazing new friends and colleagues). And the second: I received an IFA arts research grant to help actualize another old dream: to study and gather together Hyderabad’s state museums and archives in (or through) its post-bifurcation decade. Over the course of the next two years, I plan to put together a research symposium, podcasts, pedagogical curricula on archival justice, all of which will – fingers crossed – potentially lay the ground for a critical heritage field school affiliated with Hyderabad Central University. Which is what I moved to Hyderabad to try and do way back in 2014. Perhaps the circle doth – eventually – closeth?
— Sita Reddy