Did you know that... one of the pioneers of the museum movement in India was a German?


The institution of the museum, along with the modern notion of art and the preservation of cultural heritage, entered India during the colonial period as part of the great 'knowledge project' of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. As a result, the early museums in India consisted of a conglomerate of objects falling under the educational categories of geology, botany, zoology, archeology, anthropology and art. Among others, the Indian Museum in Kolkata, the Madras Museum in Chennai and the Albert Hall in Jaipur promoted this ideology.

The idea of a museum as an institution preserving cultural heritage fired the imagination of several princely families in India and several of them instituted museums of art, in line with the British-colonial concept of the museum, and infused a European flavour to their aristocratic lifestyle. Many princes were educated in France and the UK and maintained estates in these countries, where they became fascinated with the History Painting genre of Europe. They brought back to India original works of generally lesser artists as well as copies of more famous works. The 19th century museums established by the government were mainly run by the service officers, whereas the royal families often employed art-historians and experts on European art.

In this context, the pioneering art historical and museological work of the renowned German scholar on Indian art, Hermann Goetz (1898-1976), clearly stands out. When most art historians, driven by Orientalist notions of India's glorious past, concentrated on the ancient and medieval periods, Goetz was one of the first to bring the history of Indian art right up to modern and contemporary times.

Hermann Goetz
Hermann Goetz© India and the West, edited by Joachim Deppert, South Asia Institute, New Delhi, 1983

Goetz and his wife Annemarie came to India in 1936 with a travel grant from the famous Kern Institute. Initially his task was to explore the history and art of the Punjab Hill States and the Indian Himalayas. The outcome was a comprehensive study on “The Early Wooden Temples of Chamba”, in addition to numerous essays on miniature paintings.

Already before coming to India, Goetz, son of an artist, who was also the director of the College of Arts and Crafts in Karlsruhe, was an internationally renowned art historian with a number of books and articles to his credit, for example on the Jahangir Album in Berlin's State Library, or on Indian historiography. Realising the importance of enhancing his firsthand knowledge, Goetz stayed on in India even after his fellowship expired. He earned his living by teaching Indian art at various universities, writing, lecturing and undertaking journalistic activities. His most trusted companion was his tiny pinhole camera, with which he carefully documented temples, monuments, sculptures, bronzes, miniatures, textiles, and any other objects of arts and crafts that he felt was worth studying.

A very important work is his “Art and Architecture of Bikaner State”, in which he extensively recorded the art of one of the most important princely states of Western India and traced – again a pioneering achievement of his – individual painters commissioned by the court of Bikaner.

In 1940 the Maharaja of Baroda appointed Goetz as the Director of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, following the renowned German art historian Ernest Cohn-Wiener, who had been in charge of the Picture Gallery from 1934 until 1939, when he wished to leave India again for health reasons.

Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda (1863-1939) was a man of letters, highly educated, a true connoisseur of art and a reformist in his conviction. He was the first to introduce free education for all and social justice in his state, supported by his wife, Maharani Chimnabai II, an early and strong proponent of women's rights. As many of his royal contemporaries he collected European art. Already in 1887, in line with his aspirations to bring universal education and a glimpse of the modern world to his subjects, he established a museum, which was inaugurated in 1895 and modeled on existing British museums, displaying 'knowledge objects' of art, sculpture, ethnography and natural history. His idea of universal education and promoting scholarly discourse took shape in 1920, when a special wing of the Baroda Museum called Picture Gallery and housing his rich collections of European paintings, was opened.

Goetz had the suitable professional training and expertise, which he acquired while working as an assistant at Berlin's Ethnological Museum from 1926-31, to take up this museum assignment. His deep-rooted firsthand knowledge of Indian art in conjunction with his scholarly inclinations generated a new vision for the Baroda Museum. Goetz did away with old-fashioned display concepts and provided “the contextual relevance of the exhibit, reorganized the collection so that the art-historical significance of the objects was highlighted and he acquired modern works of Indian art and of Western artists working in India” says Codell in her essay quoted below.

In 1943, with similar academic objectives in mind he founded the Bulletin of the Baroda Museum, well-respected even today, and joined the newly established University of Baroda as Honorary Professor. On his retirement in Baroda in 1953, he was appointed Director of the new National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, which was inaugurated in March 1954. For this event he put together a pathbreaking exhibition of sculptures by well-known Indian artists, proving that he was not only an expert on ancient Indian art but also had a keen interest in and understanding of the contemporary trends of Indian art.

Though Hermann Goetz and his wife returned to Germany in 1955, the Maharaja of Baroda invited them back to India in 1958 for an assignment to build up the new Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum. Back in Germany after completing this project, Goetz was named Honorary Professor at the new South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University in 1961, where he taught until his death in 1976.

(Note: The author thankfully acknowledges the essays by Julie F. Codell “Ironies of mimicry. The art collection of Sayaji Rao III Gaekward, Maharaja of Baroda, and the cultural politics of early modern India”, Journal of History of Collections 15 no 1 (2003), as well as by Hermann Kulke “Life and Work of Hermann Goetz”, in India and the West, ed. Joachim Deppert, New Delhi, 1983)

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

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