The National Museum of India, located on the outer circle of Connaught Place, on the corner of Janpath and Maulana Azad Road in New Delhi, is one of the largest museums in the country, housing around two hundred thousand artefacts, mostly Indian, along with some of foreign origin, covering over 5,000 years of human history. The foundation stone of the present building of the museum, designed by Indian architect Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar, was laid by the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru on 12 May 1955 and the new museum was inaugurated by Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnsn, Vice-President of India on 18 December 1960.
Apart from the museum, the present building also houses on its first floor the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, established in 1983. Equipped with a deemed university status, the institution runs postgraduate (Masters) and Doctoral level courses in art history, conservation and museology and is all set to move to its new campus, located in Noida.
However, the proposed building of the National Museum was planned to be built in phases, finally to give it an octagonal shape. Nevertheless, only its first phase was inaugurated in 1960, while the second was completed in 1989. According to the original plan, roughly a quarter of the building still remains to be added for the completion of the proposed octagonal building.
Eventually, the cornerstone for the construction of the third and final phase was laid on 18 December 2017, although the construction of that phase involved razing the building of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has been moved to the Dharohar Bhawan on Tilak Marg in July 2019.
The National Museum, New Delhi has an interesting beginning. The idea of building a National Museum for India was first proposed by the Gwyer Committee in 1946, headed by Sir Maurice Gwyer, the former Chief Justice of India and Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University.
However, the ball actually started rolling with an exhibition organised by the Royal Academy, London with the cooperation of the Government of India and Britain, displaying Indian art and artefacts in the galleries of Burlington House, during the winter months of 1947-48. During the exhibition, it was decided that before the return of exhibits to their respective museums, the collection will be displayed in Delhi, so that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by the people of India. Accordingly, an exhibition was organized in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the President of India in New Delhi on 15 August 1949, which was formally inaugurated by R C Rajagopalachari, the then Governor General of India. The exhibition turned out to be a great success, which led to the idea that advantage should be taken of this magnificent collection to build up the nucleus collection of the National Museum. As the requests to the loaning museums and collectors to relinquish the ownership of the artefacts in favour of the proposed National Museum were readily responded, they remained in the State Rooms of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, until they were shifted to the newly built building of the museum, except for a statue of Buddha and the Rampurva Bull, which were retained at the request of Jawaharlal Nehru.
The huge collections of the National Museum include almost all disciplines of archaeological sculptures in stone, bronze and terracotta, arms and armour, manuscripts and miniatures, Textiles and Tanjore paintings, jewellery and decorative art, Pre-Columbian and Western Art collection. It has more than 3500 items belonging to the Harappan Civilization, which is the world's most representative collection of Harappan antiquities and includes the famous dancing girl made of Bronze, belonging to the early Harappan period. While the Shunga and Satvahana Arts Gallery contains several marvellous statues with conspicuous Greek influence characterised by the mirror like finishing and fragments of railings from various ancient Buddhist Stupas decorated with episodes from Buddha's Life, the Kushana Gallery contains art objects from the Kushana period during the 1st to 3rd century, when the major school of arts were the Gandhara and the Mathura School of Art. Perhaps the most prominent among the items is the famous standing Buddha, belonging to the 2nd century, created in the Gandhara School of Arts with the obvious influence of Greek Iconography. As the name suggests, the Gupta Gallery exhibits artefacts from the Gupta Dynasty, when the sculptures attained unprecedented excellence, setting a standard of artistic beauty for the coming centuries.
In addition to the above, the National Museum also contains several other galleries namely Medieval Arts Gallery, Early and Late Medieval Artefacts, Decorative Arts Galleries, Buddhist Artefacts Gallery, separate galleries for Mughal, Central India, Rajasthan and Pahari Miniature Paintings, which flourished mainly at Basohli, Guler, Chamba and Kangra. The museum also contains more than 14,000 invaluable manuscripts and texts, along with a Coins Gallery containing over 130,000 coins, ranging from the sixth century BC, when coins are believed to have first appeared in the country. Tribal Lifestyle of North East India Gallery is dedicated to the Eight States of North East India, known as the Seven Sisters, comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and One Brother, Sikkim. The gallery exhibits traditional artefacts of those states, which include the dresses, apparel, headgears, ornaments, paintings, basketry, wood carvings and other articles of personal adornments of various tribal groups. While the Wood Carving Gallery of the museum gives glimpses of the wood carving tradition of India, from the 17th to 19th centuries, illustrating the different styles of wood carvings mainly from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Odisha and South India, the Arms and Armour Gallery exhibits arms from the Stone Age to the Modern Age, which include smashing, projectile, sacrificial and ritual weapons, firearms and armours men and animals.
The National Museum currently displays only six to seven percent of its huge collection and the remaining items are exhibited on a rotational basis or in temporary exhibitions. It is expected that after the completion of the final phase of the museum building, it will be possible to display another three to four per cent of its treasures. Besides the galleries, the National Museum also has a comfortable auditorium with a seating capacity of 250 people, where a short film introducing the museum and its collections is screened regularly, other than films on art, history and heritage.