The Partition Museum’s gallery of hope features a tree where people write messages on paper leaves.The Partition Museum’s gallery of hope features a tree where people write messages on paper leaves.
All these years, the Partition of India and Pakistan, the biggest mass migration in the last century, has been confined to refugee accounts and nightmares, literature and cinema, and lived on in the fears and longings of later generations. There was no physical memorial anywhere to Partition — perhaps because it was seen as too flammable, too painful.

Now, 70 years on, a small museum in Amritsar’s Town Hall marks the traumatic event which led to 12 million people crossing the border, and killing somewhere between one and two million.

“It’s a people’s museum,” says co-founder and CEO Mallika Ahluwalia. “It’s not about assigning blame, but to acknowledge the experience of those who lived through it.” It is their voices and memories that echo in the four rooms of the museum currently open for viewers. In one of the rooms, an installation of a well is a quiet reminder of the violence, rape and honour killings of women. At another point in the room, a still-brilliant Phulkari coat and a battered leather briefcase tell a painful love story.

The Partition Museum is still very much in beta — it will open all its rooms to the public on August 17. While the material first came from the personal networks of its founders and trustees, Kishwar Desai, Dipali Khanna, Bindu Manchanda and Ahluwalia herself, all from Partition-affected families, she says they were overwhelmed with the stories that poured in. The museum’s visitor’s book has others offering more personal accounts. “We want to do an oral history archive, one where anyone can come and search, perhaps hear their great-grandparents’ voice,” says Ahluwalia.

The Partition Museum is one of several memory museums that have sprung up around the country. They flip the logic of traditional museums, where you go to look at objects and exhibits — here, the objects are made meaningful only because of the events and experiences they emerge from.

The Remember Bhopal museum is about the survivors of the 1984 gas tragedy telling their own story, in sharp counterpoint to official versions. “The museum is not meant to evoke pity or anger alone, but also their ongoing protest, their fight and resolve,” says museologist and journalist Rama Lakshmi, who curated the museum. The objects are not showpieces — they include the inhaler of a woman with respiratory illness who marched all the way to Delhi, the bangle broken when an activist was jailed. Rusted locks and corroded utensils speak of the damage of the gas tragedy, the betrayal of its survivors.

The Conflictorium museum in Mirzapur, Ahmedabad makes a more oblique point about the conflicts and differences that make us. There is no explicit mention of the 2002 riots, but the museum calls for an examination of political, social and personal conflict. A room with the silhouettes of leaders like Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Jinnah, Sardar Patel and Indula Yagnik, with red lines running between them, is also a reminder that these figures and their thoughts were often in argument and opposition. “These criss-crossings exist, and they’re fine. That’s the beauty of the Union of India, that there is no coherent idea but many thoughts that collide and come together,” says Avni Sethi, founder of the museum.

None of these museums are encyclopaedias pinned to the wall, or storehouses of objects — they are meant to make you feel, to engage the senses and the imagination. “There are 22 museums in Ahmedabad, and hardly anyone visits, so why another one? Maybe we’re not a museum-going culture, maybe we’re more oral and tactile. So we did away with traditional museum etiquette. There are no yellow lines or glass boxes, you can touch and feel and add and subtract to the displays,” says Sethi. The museum is not about the exhibits alone — it’s a dynamic space, with movie screenings, poetry readings and stand-up gigs.

“In India, we’ve only known the British model of collections exhibited like trophies, a sculpture gallery, a numismatics gallery and so on. We need more storytelling in museums,” says museum designer Amardeep Behl. For that to happen, historians, designers and storytellers must first think together, then get the specialized curators in, he says. “One needs to create immersive experiences to trigger emotions. It’s about the design, rather than the technology or the text,” says Shekhar Badve, who has designed the ‘Swaraj’ museum in Pune dedicated to early freedom fighters, among others.

The day the Bhopal museum opened, one of the women cried for hours, in front of her own infant son’s frock in a display case, says Lakshmi. She had donated it to the museum herself, not so long ago, but something about seeing it aestheticized, lit up, with his picture and her voice telling the story, just devastated her. Many of the survivors are taken back to their own experience that awful midnight, in the pitch black of the first room in the museum.

Remember Bhopal Museum

The last room in the Conflictorium has a “map of feelings” with hooks where you can place bangles, to describe your own complicated responses to each exhibit. “We don’t want the visit to be input-input-input, you want people to pause and process,” says Sethi. Those with direct memories of events are often overwhelmed in these museums, but it can unsettle other visitors too. In the Partition Museum, the gallery of hope features a tree where people write messages on paper leaves, and many of those are jingoistic “East or West India is the best”, “Salute to our soldiers” and so on, while a few are more reflective, moved by what they just saw.

Of course, these museums are still new and few, and have to walk a careful line. “Museums can be a space of genuine reflection on conflict only if they are truly autonomous. The British Museumcan host a discussion on the Middle East only because the government keeps a distance. In India, it’s harder for museums, public or private, to take on contentious political subjects,” says Ruchira Ghose, former director of Crafts Museum.

There’s a twee quality that often creeps in when complex confrontations of trauma are ruled out, says art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote. “In a society that is afraid of confronting its own spectres, there are limits to what a memory museum can do,” he points out.