How secure are India’s museums?

The titan lies, mute, as a toddler runs her pint-sized hand over its seven-foot tusk. Don’t touch it, her mother hisses. In vain. The girl continues, agog with wonder, as others gather around the creature and a bored attendant looks on.

Stegodon Ganesha, whose plaque simply reads “Animals that lived millions of years ago”, is one of 1,700 fossils in the Siwalik Gallery. The air is musty, punctuated by the scent of ageing furniture. Walk into the colonnaded courtyard and the unmistakable whiff of bat guano hits your nostrils. Go out the main gate, and you’re hurtled from past to present by honking cars, the aroma of kathi rolls and Kolkata’s mugginess.

Siwalik is one of 32 sections in the 30,000 sq. ft Indian Museum. “Jadughar” (house of magic), as the museum is locally called, isn’t just a custodian of antiquities. It watches, as quietly as Stegodon Ganesha, the shapeshifting world within and outside its walls.

At 204, this is India’s oldest museum. And also its most controversial.

A train of blue tarpaulin runs nonchalantly along its perimeter. For the vendors of Chowringhee who sell everything from jhalmuri to crockery to terracotta jewellery to T-shirts, Jadughar’s visitors matter more than its chequered history. A history that includes a Gupta-era sculpture heist in 1974. A stolen Buddha bust in 2004. Allegations of pilfering and the display of fakes. A whistleblower missing for four years. “That case is sub judice and we can’t say anything. But we pray for his return,” says administrator Nita Sengupta about Sunil Upadhyay, the preservation officer who disappeared in 2014.

Here 28 years now, the woman in a crisp taant sari and neat ponytail is no mood to hear ill of the Indian Museum, and neither are the three men accompanying her. As evening sets in, a game of factual ping-pong unfolds in the museum security office.

“Sunil had been offered Rs 90 lakh days before he disappeared,” I remember a museum worker telling me (requesting anonymity). “I suspect that more than half the originals in this museum have disappeared.”

I wonder what Sengupta and company make of this. More on that later.

On the face of it, Upadhyay’s case seems limited to rampant corruption. But look closer, and a common thread emerges, connecting seemingly disparate dots of mismanagement, artefact smuggling and tedious repatriation.

That thread is security.

India has no official protocol regulating the security of our cultural heritage. When museums are woefully understaffed or have untrained guards, it’s a cakewalk for the mice, both within and outside, to come out and play.

The only official report quantifying the state of our museums is the 2013 audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). It’s still relevant, because museologists will tell you little has changed in years since.

And if Indian Museum and Delhi’s National Museum (from where the famous General Niazi’s pistol was stolen in spite of being protected by the CISF and the naval guard) had it bad, what would you expect of the Nizam Museum?

Stealing the Nizam’s lunchbox

Mohammed Ghouse Pasha, 24, was a mason by profession and burglar by choice. So when his friend Mohammed Mubeen told him about a sitting duck in Purani Haveli, he couldn’t resist.

Located in Pathar Gatti, old Hyderabad, Purani Haveli once housed the Nizams. It is now home to the Nizam Museum, which has some 1,000 artefacts that belonged to Hyderabad’s last ruler, Mir Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII.

It also had creaky, wooden ventilator grills, CCTV cameras that didn’t work, multiple entry points, and insufficient guards. None of this escaped the gaze of 23-year-old Mubeen, who’d stepped into the museum as a visitor.

A plan 40 days in the making bore fruit in the twilight of 3 September 2018: the wiry men broke in, forced open a wooden almirah and stole a solid gold, diamond-encrusted tiffin and a gold cup, saucer and spoon. A gold-encased Quran was also on their list. They’d have had it too, if they hadn’t been unnerved by a call for namaaz from a nearby mosque.

Pasha and Mubeen had prepared well: Tie equidistant knots on the rope you use so they don’t hear you gliding. Leave no fingerprints. Change the angles of all cameras. Pretend to talk over the phone in case there are hidden cameras—so that you can mislead the police into analysing 600 cell phone towers over nothing. Take circuitous routes to hoodwink the authorities again. Find a buyer in Mumbai. Live like the Nizam.

But there’s a difference between good and meticulous preparation.

During his pre-heist recce, Pasha had left markings below a ventilator, leading the Hyderabad police to suspect a mason’s involvement. A missing person complaint from the place he worked at eventually led them to connect the dots.

Mubeen and Pasha did live like kings, though. For a week. Holed up in Mumbai, they had all their meals from the Nizam’s 2kg tiffin and “spent time with women of easy virtue”, as Hyderabad police commissioner Anjani Kumar puts it. But the loot’s high profile deterred buyers. With no takers willing to pay an estimated Rs 40-50 crore ($5.5-6.9 million), they returned to Hyderabad and the waiting arms of the police.

“We’ve suggested several security and auditing changes to the trust that runs the museum,” says Chaitanya Kumar, deputy commissioner of police (task force). ‘We’re also exploring the Mumbai angle and will provide details after a fortnight.”

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 neighbouring 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.”

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 reorganised the galleries. The tiffin and other objects were moved to a room completely devoid of security.”

Don’t be fooled by popular culture’s romanticisation 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 artefact, not the space around it. When the artefact 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?

“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 finalised,’ he explains. “This means sensitive information, even about strongrooms, can be misused if it falls in 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 artefact 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 publicised collection of a highly publicised ruler also helped. It’s the unprovenanced stuff that has easy buyers.

Cataloguing 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 artefacts).

“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 titbit. 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.

Mum’s the word

Cataloguing makes it incumbent on museums to report stolen or missing items. And museums don’t always go public about these things.

Director’s cut

In a phone call, Rajesh Purohit, director of the Indian Museum since late 2017, is more forthcoming than his subordinates in the institution’s security office:

When will the Indian Museum get CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) cover?

“Within three months. Maybe earlier.”

Why did it take so long when the National Museum and the Salarjung Museum had it for years?

“Because they (CISF) wanted separate barracks for bachelors and families…”

What?

“…there wasn’t enough space for segregated barracks. Because officers from Geological Survey of India and Archaeological Survey of India didn’t vacate even though they have offices in Salt Lake. They’re part of the government. You can’t just ask them to leave.”

…then how did you manage?

“The structures were so dilapidated, they’d have been killed. I made them understand. We’ll now have 20,000 sq. ft of space for 57 CISF personnel. But it depends on how long the CPWD (Central Public Works Department) takes to approve everything [laughs].”

Have you read the CAG’s findings on the Indian Museum?

“That report was conducted much before I joined and much before Indian Museum’s modernisation plan. But the company that won the tender did many things wrong.”

Which company was this?

“I can’t say.”

All right. What did it do wrong?

“The contractor gave only almirahs for storage. Overhead sprinklers were removed, but never replaced. Storage chambers weren’t cleaned, grills weren’t fitted. Some patches of the rooftop were open. I addressed these issues after moving here.”

Why wasn’t all this done earlier, considering you made changes in one year?

“That’s a million-dollar question [laughs]. They were not museum people and would be excused if they did wrong. But I have 28 years of experience working in museums. If I go wrong, I’ll be treated badly. I respect my job, but I’m also afraid of it.”

And what about malfunctioning cameras and disparities in artefact records?

“We have more than 560 operational cameras and 24×7 surveillance, with live monitoring in the control room. We’ve upgraded our fire safety and are digitising the entire collection. You know what? Let my security officer Jaydeep Das show you around.”

“If I go wrong, I’ll be treated badly. I respect my job, but I’m also afraid of it.”

Rajesh Purohit, Director, Indian Museum

Coast to coast

“What counts is strong management. And no dirty politics. Public museums have the first. Private museums have the second. So you see, both have problems.”

Sabyasachi Mukherjee could double as one of the Thomson and Thompson twins in the Tintin comics. But there’s nothing half-witted about the director general of CSMVS, Mumbai. Under his stewardship, CSMVS has gone from neglect to being named by the CAG as the Indian museum with best practices.

Eighty-two CCTV cameras, single-entry-single-exit access, 51 security guards in three shifts, 26 gallery attendants, regular display rotations or moving items in and out of storage, a dedicated collections manager, monthly security and fire drills. It also helps that Mukherjee and other administrators stay on the premises. The distance between CSMVS’s perimeter fence and main building would also be imposing enough. Or so you’d think.

“There was an attempt a few years ago, but he got stuck on the fence and guards along the perimeter nabbed him,” laughs Mukherjee, sinking into his boardroom settee.

It’s been 10 years since autonomously-run CSMVS got a Rs 15 crore ($2.1 million) museum grant (they’d asked the Ministry of Culture for Rs 23 crore, or $3.2 million). Twenty percent was allocated for safety and security upgrades. This included ripping out six-decade-old wiring and hiring security guards who “feel as invested in the museum as you would”.

For Mukherjee, the last point is a no-brainer. RFID chips and infrared sensors can only go so far if upkeep and manned guarding is treated with disdain. And proximity alarms? They wouldn’t work in India, where our overt need for tactile reference makes us want to touch artefacts even if we shouldn’t.

“The secret to quality manned guarding is making sure they aren’t bored,” he says, leaning in and steepling his fingers. “Who’ll guard objects they aren’t trained to respect? And who’ll be vigilant in a tepid work environment?”     

“Who’ll guard objects they aren’t trained to respect? And who’ll be vigilant in a tepid work environment?”

CSMVS Director General Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Working their ‘magic’

Roughly 2,100km east, back in Kolkata, a drowsy attendant in Indian Museum’s Bharhut Gallery is startled by a camera flash. Saree pleats clutched in one hand, she chides the culprit for standing on the base of a 2,000-year-old Sunga stupa.

I decide to take the museum director up on his offer of seeing the improved security infrastructure. But when I ask for department head Jaydeep Das, I’m ushered to meet “administrator in charge” Nita Sengupta.

The approach to the first floor of the administrative section, tucked behind the main museum, smells of cigarettes and somebody’s lunch. Right ahead is Sengupta’s cabin, where a conservation officer with mehndi-dyed hair sits silently at her desk. It takes several minutes for her to notice she has a visitor, and a few seconds to summon Das and museum caretaker Supreme Bhowmick.

“Let’s go,” she says flatly.

Das’s template government office—saloon doors, glass countertop table, white-inked nameplate—overlooks the museum courtyard. As children prance outside, we settle into his cabin. When it comes to matters of security, everyone but Das talks.

“…so yes, CISF should be here by the first quarter of 2019. And we have 429 cameras,” Bhowmick drones.

Wait.

“But Mr Purohit said you have 560 cameras, and that CISF will be here within three months. Which one is it?”

“429 cameras now and 560 eventually,” he says hurriedly, his eyes darting around the room. “And we have multiple cameras in the Coin Gallery.”

“Is that because most of the coins there were alleged to be fake?”

Das, a former Kolkata Police officer with a buzz cut and denim-on-denim attire, starts fidgeting with each of his four rings in stony silence.

“Who said that?” Sengupta turns sharply.

“Sunil Upadhyay supposedly suspected this. It’s there in his brother’s Supreme Court case against the museum.”

“People don’t know the difference between replicas and fakes,’ she interrupts.

The mehndi-haired conservation officer, RP Savita, nods vociferously in agreement.

Note: The CAG report had noted that none of India’s national museums conducted periodic authentication checks.

“What about Upadhyay telling his brothers about mismanagement and criminal oversight here just days before he disappeared?”

“When we all get stressed, we share it with our families,” Bhowmick chimes loudly.

“This is not stress. These are serious allegations.”

“Look, he even used to call me didi,” Sengupta gestures animatedly. “He’d called me on the day he was to be admitted to RN Tagore Hospital. That was the last I heard of him…”

“People say he was bribed here to keep his mouth shut.”

“They can say what they want. So can the CAG. We’d even gone for the parliamentary hearing on their report in 2015. It was the Archaeological Survey of India, not us or the National Museum that came under the scanner.”

“Well if everything is fine here, why would there be so much smoke without fire?”

“You see, this is Jadughar,” says Sengupta, turning around with a slight smile. “Anything is possible here. But not everyone likes magic.”

Leave a Comment