Amritsar’s history is intertwined with histories of colonialism, oppression, resistance, and the Partition of India, each changing the city’s fabric and heritage culture. It is within this context and the mere 32 kilometers that separate Amritsar from the border with Pakistan, that the Partition Museum sits. The museum was founded to document and represent individual and family stories of the Partition, and the journey India took to get there. I visited in October 2019, and spent two days exploring the space, taking detailed notes, and drawing maps of the rooms because photography is strictly forbidden. This article is based on my notes, and the images used are those which are publicly available.
The Partition Museum is one of three important spaces on the Heritage Mile, the others being the Harminder Sahib (or Golden Temple), and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Memorial Garden. A privately funded institution, the Partition Museum was founded by Lady Kishwar Desai, author, journalist, and wife of British peer Lord Desai, who was born in Ambar (formerly in the Punjab) and grew up in Chandigarh. It is housed in the recently renovated Town Hall, a colonial-era administrative building that operated a former city police headquarters (kotwali), complete with jail cells, the court of small causes, and municipal offices.
As the focus of the Punjab Uprising of April 1919, the Town Hall is intimately connected to Amritsar’s colonial history and almost half of the building was burnt down during the conflict.
This unrest led to widespread suppression and colonial violence, including the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, in which a British army regiment led by Colonel Dyer fired on a crowd of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in a bagh (translated roughly as garden, or park) in Amritsar. The massacre, a turning point for the Indian anti-colonial movement and a source of controversy for the British government ever since, has been commemorated in the bagh less than a kilometre from the Town Hall and the Partition Museum. It is a powerful statement that a building embodying colonial law and order is now a ‘people’s museum’ relaying and recording the impact of colonisation, Partition, and the effects of independence from the British state on India.
The museum is structured chronologically across fourteen galleries, exploring key moments in Indian history between 1900 and 1948 using memorabilia donated by families, contemporary textual and photographic sources, testimonies and purpose-built immersive installations, all with bilingual text - English and Punjabi.
The first two galleries - ‘Why Amritsar?’ and ‘Punjab’ - provide a geographic context for the museum, which represents the stories of local families, communities, and the region within a larger national history. Galleries three and four, entitled ‘Resistance’, and ‘The Rise’, look at the growing anti-colonial movement, using jail installations to great effect; these rooms are where I spent the most time. For me, the most evocative source that has stuck in my mind is a 1997 interview with Singhera Singh for Partition Voices. Singh, 97, starts by talking about Vaisakhi in 1919, using it to demonstrate his age. He recounts being present at the bagh and hiding in the Harmandir Sahib during the shooting, returning later to collect bodies. For me, listening to this clip, recorded in my lifetime, shows the longevity of the living memory of episodes of colonial violence like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Singh also admits to being part of a group nicknamed the 'crows' which attacked Muslim refugees in Punjab during the violence and chaos of Partition.
Moving beyond the 1930s, Galleries Five, Six and Seven look at the political and geographical manoeuvring at the end of British rule in India. Gallery Eight is a transition moment, looking at ‘Independence’, with the following three spaces covering the impact of Partition and the huge migration which followed the announcement of the separation of India and Pakistan in 1945. These galleries are the most immersive, and the most affecting. The museum uses audio-visual oral histories, along with objects taken with people or left behind, throughout larger scale installations like bullet-hole riddled crumbling walls. It is difficult to walk through and engage with each exhibit, as they are all tinged with a note of tragedy, of fear, and of the loss of a home. Particularly emotive is a well installation: a tribute to women who committed suicide amidst gendered violence such as attacks and abductions in the violence following Partition. These stories, such as from Rawalpindi, were rarely spoken about by women and their families, and it is only research work by female academics such as Urvashi Butalia and her book The Other Side of Silence that has brought this aspect of the Partition to light. Like this, the Partition Museum devotes space and energy to uncovering the more ‘silent’ or marginalised histories of this period.
Leaving this gallery, you ascend a staircase, which takes you into Gallery Eleven: “Refuge’, which represents the refugee camps and spaces that people lived in on arrival in India. Here, the visitor sees firsthand an overarching theme of displacement threading through the museum - of people’s lives, of their belongings, and of their descendants. The Wagah border, 32km outside of Amritsar, seemed both insurmountable and ridiculously arbitrary to me whilst I looked around this space. The museum, however, ends on a brighter note, ending with ‘Hope’, a gallery for visitors to add their thoughts and listen to stories of optimism for the future.
I would greatly recommend a visit to the Partition Museum in Amritsar and would love to visit the new museum in Delhi that is under construction, curated by the same team. For me, the reclamation of a formerly colonial building used as a kotwali, and the ways in which the exhibition uses this spatial context to creatively present information, is particularly inspiring. The museum is very relatable. For me, this is because whilst telling a story of nations, the carving up of a huge landscape, and the political and economic machinations of the Partition and the colonial state, the museum remains rooted in local collective memory and the cityscape of Amritsar, relating the lived experiences of Punjabi and Indian people during this major historical event.
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Tiggy Allen is a British historian who has lived in Bangalore, South India, since 2015. She completed her MA in History at the University of Leeds, specialising in the colonial period, and is now on a mission to visit as many of India's museums and monuments as possible, pandemic permitting.