The role of the museum

The role of the museum

The woman in a spotless white coat greeted us with a big smile. She looked genuinely happy to receive visitors even at short notice. Leading us to an inner room, the middle-aged woman who I will call Betty, carefully carried out a big rectangular cardboard box into the room. She laid it on the table and opened it to show us its contents. First she removed the white paper on top and then she proceeded to remove the white cloth that lay below. “We have deliberately chosen to use white cotton cloth to cover all the textiles in our care. It is easy for insect droppings to show on the white colour if the textile should become vulnerable to an infestation of insects.” The garment in question was an old body-cloth brought from the Konyak region as part of the Haimendorf collection in 1936. The faded blue and orange body-cloth was so fragile that the caretakers had to keep it carefully under wraps after each exhibition. Several of the wool threads in the cloth had come away so it was not easy to see the v-shaped geometrical patterns on the cloth. This particular cloth was bought in the 1930s from the Konyak region.


Betty used to work in the Welt museum in the heart of Vienna. In 2012, the museum had a long exhibition of Naga cultural life called, ‘Jewellery and Ashes.’ The exhibition was culled from the collection of Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf. Photographs, textiles and various cultural objects such as miniature log drums, spears, jewellery, women’s costumes, some skulls, and several videos of Naga life were on display for the public of Vienna. In addition, there was an extraordinary exhibit of an Ao Naga kitchen transported from Mokokchung district to the museum, complete with fireplace, utensils, kitchen implements, bamboo floor, a bamboo structure for drying meat and vegetables on top of the hearth, and a video showing the everyday former life of the kitchen. At one point in the video, a mouse could be seen running across the bamboo floor.


In English the Welt museum means the World museum. It houses 200,000 ethnographic objects from all over the world including Africa, the Near East and Central Asia, Siberia, South-east Asia, North, Central and South America, China, Korea, Japan, Oceania and Australia, and from the Himalayan region. One of the many beautiful things that the Welt Museum had been doing was to preserve the Haimendorf collection of Naga textiles, artefacts and jewellery in a sterile environment where they were safe from the normal processes of decay. Betty devotedly looked after each cloth in her care. Visitors had to remove their shoes and wipe any traces of dirt and possible bacteria before entering the cellar rooms where the collections are stored. The museum was always open to Naga researchers and visitors, who were allowed to photograph the items, collect and use whatever information the museum had garnered on the items.


Items that would have been lost to village burnings during the fifties, and what would have been forever lost to future generations by natural decay, have been rescued and preserved for many more generations.


In 2014, amid movements to close the museum, a frantic signature campaign was undertaken, but the museum has now been closed from November 2014 to the end of 2016 for what has been referred to as remodelling work. However, the huge space that was available for exhibitions has been taken away from the museum, so the wonderful exhibitions that were a major part of the Welt museum will become a thing of past history. This is a great loss as the opportunity for display and dissemination of cultural information has been taken away.


The failed signature campaign for the Welt Museum shows what little chance cultural institutions have against governments convinced that the upkeep of such places is a loss of public revenue. We neither have the resources or technology available to house our cultural treasures in our museums. The artefacts in the Welt museum are stored in huge basement cellars where the temperature is carefully controlled, and damage by rodent intruders is meticulously monitored. There are separate compartments for the different regions which, interestingly enough, had many shared items of material culture. The scrupulous care rendered by the museum is something that would require a huge investment of money and manpower if we were to replicate it. At the same time, the temporary closing down of Welt museum sends out a signal that it is probably time for us to think of similar institutions to house and archive our cultural history and whatever material remnants we have of that culture. It would benefit researchers and storytellers. It would benefit younger generations of Nagas because the material evidences of our culture are fast disappearing from both urban and rural areas.