The Latest Word Is...

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Warren Hastings’ home in Kolkata may soon host the world’s first interactive museum of letters.

The word has traversed regions and continents, and gone from stone tablets and seals to palm leaves, papyrus and print. Tracing this journey will become easier once the world’s first ‘Museum of the Word’ comes up at Kolkata’s Belvedere House, the former viceregal palace said to be gifted to Warren Hastings by Murshidabad Nawab Mir Jafar Ali Khan.

Belvedere House, set on 30 verdant acres, used to house the National Library, which shifted to the newly-constructed Bhasha Bhavan within the same estate a couple of years ago. A committee appointed by the Union Ministry of Culture to recommend Belvedere House’s re-use has proposed that the heritage structure be converted into a word museum. The proposal of the committee, chaired by historian Barun De, with others like Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri and Dr Najaf Haider as members, is now being studied by the Ministry, which is learnt to have given its preliminary approval. “Work on setting up this museum will start as soon as the Archaeological Survey of India completes renovating Belvedere House,” a senior officer of National Library, which will execute the multi-crore project, tells Open.

The committee noted that there is no institution to ‘study and record the full presence of the word in human life’ and, hence, the need to set up this museum. It has visualised it as a hub for collections, displays and activities of all kinds relating to language, the word and text. And the displays won’t be static. “The museum will project a concept: the total process of mankind’s verbal and textual life, and the role of the word in shaping society, history and culture,” says the officer, who studied the committee’s proposal at length.

There will be exhibits, displays and instructional material on languages, their history and spread, language families, alphabets and writing systems and the structure and operation of languages. The museum will present the actual operation of the word in human lives through tableaus, models and dioramas of oral renderings and performances, the process of oral transmission and word writing and recording procedures. “On display will be materials and implements of textual recording, from stone and terracotta tablets to all types of manuscripts and printing technologies and electronic texts. All means of communication and transmission, from the earliest messaging and signaling systems, to the present-day internet, fax and SMS will form part of our live and interactive displays.” He adds that an interesting section would be letters, diaries and family archives of important people to show the function of text in private relations and emotional lives of people. Overall, the displays would illustrate the history of writing and printing technology and the impact of the word on human history and thought. The latter class of exhibits would range from historical documents and classical literature to seminal philosophic, social and scientific writings, collections of journalistic material, advertising copy and printed ephemera.

Visitors to the museum will also see the earliest printing machines, and the evolution of printing technology from letter-press to the present-day computerised form. “But these machines wouldn’t be on simple static display. Museum staff would demonstrate their operation to visitors. Visitors will also be given a hands-on opportunity to create their own web page and transmit or receive information electronically, besides learning about how the internet functions. This will be a major draw for those who may not have first-hand knowledge of the internet and the web,” the officer says.

Another major section of the proposed museum will focus on the ‘intangible heritage’ of the word in society, history and culture. “This section will dwell on the twin aspects of the creative or performative and the academic or analytical. The performative section will conduct programmes to demonstrate the creative generation of texts through oral performances of text transmission and generation by inviting practising writers to demonstrate their works by showing and discussing drafts, manuscripts, background papers and other material they base their writings on. There could also be actual on-site composition by many writers. Writing workshops would be organised on a regular basis. The museum would organise demonstrations, interactive sessions and discussions about non-literary text generation, as in journalism, advertising and commercial communication,” he adds.

Another major role proposed for the museum is that of a meeting place and exchange mart for universities, research bodies, writers, journalists and publishing houses by becoming an open venue for exhibitions of various types of textual material, and for hosting lectures, conferences and other events.

“The committee interacted with us at length and incorporated many of our suggestions in its final proposal. The National Library, we feel, is the best institution to set up such a museum and we’ve pledged full support to this venture,” National Library Association secretary Saibal Chakraborty says. Chakraborty, echoing the views of the committee, points out that most material for the museum is already in possession of the National Library. “We have countless rare manuscripts, journals, books and other texts in our archives. These could easily be handed over to the museum. We have separate sections on 14 major Indian languages that no other library in the country has. We have the largest collection of books, manuscripts, journals and documents in Asia. It is only, thus, natural, that the National Library hosts the first word museum of the world,” he says.

The committee noted that Belvedere House, given its historical importance as the home of many viceroys, governor-generals and governors, would be the apt structure to house this museum. The proposed museum, the committee noted, ‘will bring the National Library into wider public focus and ensure its interaction with the whole of society….it will extend the role of the National Library to the wider public and beyond the academic community to which it is restricted at present’. This, the committee said, is in accord with the current worldwide trend of extending the reach of a national library beyond scholars and researchers ‘to make it a point of entry into the world of books and knowledge circulation for the wider public’.