Founded in 1814 and located on the busy Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Calcutta, the Indian Museum is the oldest and the largest museum in India. Exhibiting rare collections of antiques, fossils, skeletons, Egyptian mummies, armour, old coins, and Mughal Paintings, it is strangely known to locals as Jadu Ghar, the House of Magic.
Designed by the famous British architect Walter Granville, the imposing Neoclassical-style building, completed in the year 1878, almost looks like a colonnaded palace ranged around a central lawn. It may be mentioned here that, apart from it, Walter Granville also designed the Calcutta High Court and the General Post Office building.
The root of the origin and growth of the Indian Museum is linked with the foundation of Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones in 1784. Following its inception, in 1796, some of the members of the Asiatic Society conceived the unique idea of establishing a Museum at a suitable place for the collection, reception, preservation and exhibition of the unique objects, whether it is created by man or produced by nature. However, the idea did not take any concrete shape till the beginning of 1808, when the society was offered a suitable accommodation by the Government of India, at the corner of Park Street on a plot of land owned by the Government.
The proposal came to the surface again on 3 February 1814, when Dr Nathanial Wallich, a Danish botanist, who was imprisoned at the siege of Serampur, but was released by the Government later, in recognition of his achievements in the field of science, wrote a letter to the society, strongly advocating the formation of a Museum. In his letter, he willingly offered his service as the honorary curator of the proposed Museum and also promised to donate the duplicates from his own valuable collection.
The proposal was whole heartedly accepted by the members of the society and it was promptly decided that a Society Museum will be temporarily established at the premises of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Finally, a museum was established on 2 February 1814 at the Asiatic Society under the guidance of Dr Wallich, who was appointed as the Honorary Curator of the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society.
From its inception in 1814 till 1878, the museum was housed in the premises of the Asiatic Society on Park Street.The foundation stone of the present building of the Indian Museum was laid on the finest site of Chowringhee in 1867and after the completion of the construction of the new building, it opened its gates to the public with two galleries on 1 April 1878.The Indian Museum is the earliest and the largest multipurpose Museum not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in the Asia-Pacific region of the world.
It was, in fact, the beginning of a significant epoch initiating the socio-cultural and scientific achievements of the country and is considered as the beginning of the modern age and the end of mediaeval era. In the beginning the meuseum was known as the Asiatic Society Museum and subsequently came to be known as the Imperial Museum. However, later it became popularly known as the Indian Museum.
Today, the Indian Museum is equipped with thirty five galleries, consisting of six cultural and scientific sections, which are Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Economic Botany, with a number of galleries under each section.
The theme Gallery of the museum is equipped with rare paintings and 200-year-old hand drawn maps. Apart from the mammoth skeletons of the big animals and the stuffed birds from British zoological expeditions, it also exhibits the 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummies and some extraordinary Indian antiques, like Shah Jahan’s emerald goblet, and an urn said to contain the Buddha’s ashes and others. Special permission is required to see the exceptional collection of over 50,000 old coins. The other impressive collections include the Siwalik fossils, priceless exhibits from the 2,500 BC Indus Valley Civilization, the superbly sculpted railings from the 2,000-year old Bharhut Stupa, a prized collection of Buddhist art, miniature paintings and a large number of ivory, glass and silverwares.
For massive restoration of the building, the Indian Museum was closed to the visitors from 1 September 2013 to 3 February 2004, after which it celebrated its bicentennial.