National Art Gallery, Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)


Archaeology | Anthropology | Art | Numismatics | Botany | Zoology
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History of the museum

   The proposal for a museum in Madras was mooted by the Madras Literary Society in 1846 AD and Sir Henry Pottinger, the then Governor, obtained the sanction of the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London.

    In January 1851 AD, Dr. Edward Balfour, Medical Officer of the Governor's Body guard was appointed as the First Officer in charge of the Government Museum. The notification in the Fort St. George Gazetteer dated 29th Aprtil 1851 AD contained the first announcement regarding the opening of the Madras Government Museum. The Government Museum otherwise called as the Central Museum was started in the College of Fort St. George, in the premises of the present office of the Director of Public Instruction, on College Road. The college had been established in 1812 AD and made a significant contribution to the development of South Indian Languages. The Museum was started in the first floor of the college with the 1100 geological specimens of the Madras Literary Society. It steadily developed and expanded under the guidance and supervision of a succession of directors.

     As the building was in a dilapidated condition, the Museum’s Superintendent, Dr. Balfour advocated shifting it to another building.

     In December 1854 AD, it was shifted to a building named the Pantheon, also known as the Public Rooms or Assembly Rooms, where the elite of the city met.

     The building was being utilised for banquets, balls and dramatic performances from the last decade of the 18th Century. The estate of the Pantheon was the property of Hall Plumer, civil servant and public works contractor who subsequently, in 1793 AD, assigned the grounds to a Committee of 24, which regulated the public amusements in the city at that time. In 1821 AD, the Committee sold the main house and central garden space to E.S. Moorat, a wealthy Armenian merchant, who in turn, sold it back to the Government in 1830 AD, for Rs.28,000. The property was originally 43 acres in extent and stretched from Casa Major Road to the present Police Commissioner’s Road, and it was flanked by the Pantheon Road and Halls Road.

     The Public Library was started in 1853 AD. It was opened to the public in June 1862 AD. The construction of the library and lecture hall began in December 1873 AD and completed in 1875 AD and formally opened by the Governor on March 16, 1876 AD. Captain Mitchell, Superintendent, was responsible for strengthening the library. He is regarded as the originator of the Connemara Public Library.

     It was formally opened on December 5, 1896 AD by Sir Arthur Elibank Havelock, the then Governor and named after its progenitor, Lord Connemara, Governor of Madras. Designed by H.Irvin, the then Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, it had a magnificent hall with a splendid reading room and beautiful teak wood shelves.

     The library had an imposing tower 200 feet high, the highest in Madras at that time. But in March 1897 AD, the tower was demolished as it was found to be in a precarious condition.

     Libraries controlled by different bodies which were in need of space were invited to occupy some portion of the Connemara Library. The Madras Literary Society Library was the first to function inside the Connemara Library until it was shifted in 1905 AD to its present building on College Road. The Madras University Library occupied the space vacated by the Madras Literary Society Library and functioned there until 1928 AD when it moved to Chepauk. The Oriental Manuscripts Library which was also housed in the Connemara Library till 1935 AD, moved into the University Buildings at Chepauk. Books were purchased on behalf of the Victoria Technical Institute from the Dhanakoti Mudaliar Endowment and still housed in the Fine Arts Section of the Connemara Public Library. Later the library came under the control of the Director of Public Instruction.

     In 1854 AD, a young cheetah and tiger were kept in the museum and visitors came to see them from distant places. As visitors to the museum increased, Dr. Balfour requested the Nawab of the Carnatic, to send the wild animals he had to the museum. In September 1855 AD, a notification was issued asking for the animals to be gifted to the Museum Zoological Gardens. By the first half year of 1856 AD, the Madras Museum had zoological garden with 360 animals. In 1863 AD, the City Municipality took over the Zoological Gardens and shifted it to the People’s Park.

     The plans for the Madras Aquarium were drawn up in 1905-1906 AD by Dr. Thurston, the then Superintendent of the Museum in consultation with a Committee. As this was the first Aquarium, methods of aeration, etc. found useful in Europe had to be suitably modified and adopted. The aquarium was opened to the public on October 21, 1909 AD and was very popular.

     When the Fisheries Department came to be organised, the management of the aquarium was taken over by it on April 1, 1910 AD. During 1942 AD, owing to the threat of a Japanese attack on Madras, the city was evacuated, the collections in the Aquarium were thrown and it ceased to exist. Attempts to rebuild the aquarium have not fructified.

     The period 1941-1946 AD were bad years for the Museum. A great part of the buildings and the grounds had to be handed over for an ARP depot stationed in the Museum. The galleries had to be used as storage rooms and therefore the showcases were removed. The most valuable among the collections, such as bronzes, copper plate grants, selected coins, relic caskets of Bhattiprolu, etc. were sent to places of safety. As the Amaravati sculptures were too heavy and difficult to transport, the Government ordered that they should be protected in situ in the Gallery.

     In December 1896 AD, the Front Building (Anthropological Galleries) and The Museum Theatre were opened. The new extension (main entrance) was built in 1939 AD in order to display stone sculptures, period-wise. The Government Museum took over the Victoria Technical Institute Building (constructed in 1909 AD) and named it as National Art Gallery and was thrown open to the public on November 27, 1951 AD.

     The Museum celebrated its Centenary on November 27, 1951 AD which was inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In Order to display the exquisite rich collection of bronzes, a separate building was constructed in 1963 AD. In the same year, a new block was added to the Chemical Conservation Section to cope with the increasing work of preservation. A new building for the Birds Gallery was also opened in 1963 AD.

     A separate building for Contemporary Art was opened in January 25, 1984 AD and a new Children’s Museum building was opened in April 1988 AD. The Raja Ravi Varma paintings, which are considered as National Treasures, have been placed in a gallery with Fibre Optic lighting. This system of lighting gives a dramatic lighting effect. The Contemporary Art Gallery has been lit using Dichroic Halogen lamps. These lamps reflect back the heat. They also have a pleasing visual effect. These lighting methods are technology demonstrators and a first for museums in India at the time of their installation in 2001 AD.

     Notable collections in the Museum are the world famous South Indian bronzes, Amaravati sculptures, Tanjore (Thanjavur) armoury, inscriptions on stones and copper plates, the Dowleshwaram hoard of gold coins of Raja Raja I and Kulothunga I, the Chengam hoard of copper coins, artifacts from the Megaliths of Adichanallur, the Bruce Foote Collection of prehistoric stone implements, Roman and other artifacts from the famous site of Arikamedu (near Pondicherry), the exquisite crystal reliquaries from the Bhattiprolu Stupa and the enormous skeleton of the whale obtained on shore near Mangalore.

History of this Web Site

    In order to create a web site for the Government Museum, Chennai a proposal was sent to the Government at the cost of Rs.5 lakhs during the financial year 2000-2001
AD. The aim of the project was to project the art, culture and natural heritage of Tamil Nadu to the whole world.

    The Government sanctioned Rs.5 lakhs for this and subsequently a committee of curators was formed to create the web site. Leading software organisations were invited for a demonstration in the Government Museum, Chennai and discussions were held with the experts in the field. The configuration of the web site was finalised based on these inputs and after viewing the web site of other museums in India and the world.

    The project was entrusted to ELCOT, Chennai which is a Tamilnadu State Government Corporation specialising in Electronics and Information Technology based projects. The Curators and the Commissioner of Museums prepared the text and photographs. They worked for 10 to 12 hours daily for nearly a year to finish the matter. The web site contains 1400 pages and is one of the biggest among museums in the world. The structure of the web site was designed by ELCOT and was launched as draft on 17.9.2001
AD. It was launched on 25.10.2001 AD for public to browse and give their feedback.

For further details,

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Department of Museums

List of Superintendents / Directors / Commissioners

1 Surgeon E.Balfour First Officer in-charge 1851 - 1859 AD
2 Captain J. Mitchell Superintendent 1859 - 1872
3 Surgeon G. Bidie, C.I.E. Superintendent 1872 - 1884
4 Dr. Edgar Thurston, C.I.E. Superintendent 1885 - 1908
5 Dr. J.R. Henderson, C.I.E. Superintendent 1908 - 1919
6 Dr. F.H. Gravely, D.Sc. Superintendent 1920 - 1940
7 Dr. A. Aiyappan, Ph.D. Superintendent 1940 - 1960
8 Dr. S.T. Satyamurthi, D.Sc. Superintendent 1961 - 1978
9 Mr. N. Harinarayana, M.A.B.Sc.(Tech.). Director 1978 - 1989
10 Mr. G. Kesavaram, M.Sc. Director 1989 - 1991
11 Mr. M. Raman, I.A.S. Commissioner 1991 - 1993
12 Mr. T.R. Ramasamy, I.A.S. Director 1993
13 Mr. M. Ramu, I.A.S. Commissioner 1993 - 1995
14 Mr. Naresh Gupta, I.A.S. Commissioner 1995 - 1996
15 Mr. K. Dheenadayalan, I.A.S. Commissioner 1996 - 1997
16 Mr. S. Rangamani, I.A.S. Principal Commissioner 1997 - 1999
17 Dr. R. Kannan, Ph.D., I.A.S. Commissioner 1999 - 2004
18 Thiru. M. A. Siddique, I.A.S. Director 2004 - 2006
19 Dr. R. Kannan, Ph.D., I.A.S. Special Commissioner and Commissioner of Museums 2006 - 2007
20 Dr. Sitharam Gurumurthi, I.A.S. Principal Commissioner (Additional Charge) 2007
21 Dr. Shanthini Kapoor, I.A.S. Principal Secretary / Commissioner of Museums 2007 - 2008
22 Dr. T.S.Sridhar, I.A.S. Principal Secretary / Commissioner of Museums 2008 - 2011
23 Thiru. S.S.Jawahar, I.A.S. Commissioner of Museums 2011 - 2013
24 Dr. R. Kannan, I.A.S. Principal Secretary/Commisioner of Museums (Additional Charge) 2013
25 Thiru P.R.Shampath, I.A.S. Principal Secretary/Commisioner of Museums 2013 - 2013
26 Dr.R.Kannan, I.A.S. Principal Secretary/Commissioner of Museums (Additional Charge) 2013 - 2014
27 Dr.R.Kannan, I.A.S. Additional Chief Secretary / Commissioner of Museums (Additional Charge) 2014 - 2015
28 Dr.D.Karthikeyan, I.A.S. Commissioner of Museums (Additional Charge) 2015 - 2015
29 Dr.D.Jagannathan, I.A.S. Director of Museums  
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