India has no official protocol regulating the security of our cultural heritage

The trust he’s referring to is the Nizam’s Jubilee Pavilion Trust, owned by the Nizam’s younger grandson Mufakkam Jah. The tussle between Mufakkam and his brother Mukarram Jah, who owns the Purani Haveli building, is fodder for Hyderabad gossip and may be one factor that impedes any security upgrades. But locals like Anuradha Reddy also point to the role of illegal structures.

“I’ve done guided tours in Purani Haveli for years, and the encroachment is ridiculous. A neighboring building has three walls of its own. The fourth is a wall it shares with the haveli,” says Reddy, convenor of the Hyderabad chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “What was the municipal corporation thinking? No wonder the museum was an easy target.”

What were the items though?

Former curator D. Bhaskar Rao had stored the most precious items—including the gold tiffin—in the museum’s most secure section. “But for whatever reason,” says a heritage activist, requesting anonymity, “some people reorganized the galleries. The tiffin and other objects were moved to a room completely devoid of security.”

Don’t be fooled by popular culture’s romanticization of heists. Basic planning matters more than cutting-edge technology. This applies to security too. Take the single entry-single exit rule of thumb followed by museums abroad. Or that most heritage structures, with their numerous corridors, old fenestrations and lack of climate control weren’t designed to be museums. Interventions here involve walking a tightrope between heritage committees and security upgrades.

“The most important thing is the artifact, not the space around it. When the artifact becomes your focus, security automatically gets tethered to what you’re doing,” says Abhishek Ray, principal architect with Matrika Design Collaborative. Many things concern him about security infrastructure here: outdated CCTV recording and metadata formats, staff shortages, lackadaisical attitudes to live monitoring and inconsistent use of shatterproof glass and sensors. But the worst?

Schemes providing great financial assistance

“The tendering process,” says Ray, who’s worked with the National Museum in Delhi and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). The Ministry of Culture’s Museum Grant Scheme provides financial assistance to both public and autonomous institutions, but at what cost?

“We have to share blueprints with contractors even before someone is finalized,’ he explains. “This means sensitive information, even about strongrooms, can be misused if it falls in the wrong hands. Many of us have raised the issue, but the government doesn’t get it.”

What bureaucrats also don’t get is the importance of museum records. Let’s walk through the ramifications.

The better your audits, the more difficult it is for a stolen artifact to get buyers. This can be seen in the recent Nizam Museum heist, where buyers were wary of the gold tiffin because it had a recorded antiquity value. That it was associated with a highly publicized collection of a highly publicized ruler also helped. It’s the unprovenanced stuff that has easy buyers.

Missing items

Cataloging makes it incumbent on museums to report stolen or missing items. And museums don’t always go public about these things, says S Vijay Kumar, founder of the India Pride Project (a network dedicated to identifying and repatriating stolen artifacts).

“The Government Museum in Egmore, Chennai, had six-seven break-ins in the last 15 years, but the only reported missing object is one coin,” he claims. “Then there were paintings from Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar, which is known to have outdated records. These were reported missing during the Kashmir floods. But they recently surfaced in the US for a value of $300,000.”

Let’s take the disconcertion a notch higher. Kumar says the total value of stolen Indian antiquities since 1950 is upwards of Rs 20,000 crore ($2.77 billion). “But this is a conservative estimate,” he adds. So if this is the official estimate, how much is unaccounted for?

One last tidbit. The Ministry of Culture has not made it mandatory for missing antiquities to be recorded with Interpol or the international Art Loss Register.

Remember, these are the gatekeepers of national culture and heritage.

 

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