Rama Lakshmi: The woman behind Remember Bhopal Museum
Fighting for justice has never been easy. For the past 30 years, Bhopal gas survivors are trying to forget that catastrophic night of the gas leak at the Union Carbide Plant, repercussions of which continue to distress lives. Succeeding governments have moved little on making efforts to resurrect the lives of people yet suffering from its aftermath. Realising this, museologist and journalist Rama Lakshmi set up “Remember Bhopal Museum” in an effort to unearth truth, give voice to the movement which continues to fight for the rights of the survivors. The journey hasn’t been easy, for curating resources, managing funds and integrating technology to tell the heartfelt stories of the survivors needs patience and selfless dedication.
Rama Lakshmi who has earlier worked with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum has been striving hard for more than five years now communicating story of this endless struggle. She speaks of the museum with Bhavna Agarwal at SheThePeople.TV.
1. What interested you to establish the the Remember Bhopal Museum amidst growing discontent among Bhopal survivors?
I am a trained museologist and oral historian, and I have worked in the US museums on issues of difficult social history and protest movements. During one of my conversations with the survivors and activists in Bhopal, I learned that they had collected some objects of memory from families for a small exhibition in 2004 called “Yaad-e-Hadsa.” They also told me that they opposed the government’s memorial project because the government had no moral right to build one. That day, our first conversations about a survivors’ own museum began.
2. You shared the survivors had reportedly resisted the government’s proposal of establishing a museum? What was the reason for the resistance?
Some survivors’ groups in Bhopal said that the government was complicit in the injustice meted out to them during the years after the tragedy. They ask a very powerful question: Can one of the perpetrators of injustice build a memorial or a museum for those who struggle under its weight for decades? Who has the right to tell the story, to curate a community’s memory?
They blame the government of secretly negotiating a settlement with the Union Carbide based on lower numbers of injuries and of the massive bureaucratic bungling and corruption in the manner in which compensation was distributed and the rehabilitation money was utilized over the years.
3. When did the idea of this commemoration come about? What intrigued you to the survivors stories?
This is one of the bravest environmental struggles in contemporary India. It is not just a story of trauma. But it is also a story of incredible fight for justice – a movement that has used innovative protest strategies over the decades and has been an inspiration for many other groups. The Bhopal story also refuses to go away and be buried in the annals of history – it keeps popping up in many of our ongoing political and economic debates. In that sense, it is not a “history” in the classical sense. The museum is very much the story of “now”, as it unfolds right in front of our eyes.
This is one of the bravest environmental struggles in contemporary India. It is not just a story of trauma.
4. How difficult was it to curate all the exhibits from the survivors and affected locations?
A lot of the work had been done by the survivors and activists themselves. They had collected about a dozen objects of personal memory. We just added more to those, and also brought in objects of protest-memory that was a witness to their valiant fight; objects related to physical disability; objects of professionals like a medical doctor, forensic specialist, compensation lawyer, factory operator and so on. We also recorded dozens of oral histories of survivors, activists and witnesses. The oral histories are a significant ingredient in the story.
5. Do you face any challenges while preserving the exhibited object as no chemical preservatives are used?
Yes preservation has been a huge challenge. Many of the ingredients in the preservation processes used by museums here have toxic material, harmful pesticides – some of them even have products by Dow Chemicals. Our museum had to be consistent with the message of the Bhopal movement. The search for non-toxic museum preservation practice is a global one, not exclusive to Bhopal. We have also not used harmful toxic products in the exhibtry – something that pushed the costs up. Look around Indian museums and exhibitions – most of them use flex.
We also recorded dozens of oral histories of survivors, activists and witnesses. The oral histories are a significant ingredient in the story.
6. How has the museum been received so far?
The response has been incredibly satisfying and encouraging for all of us. It is the first such museum about an ongoing social movement. It has energized many rights-groups around the country. They are looking at museums as a strategic story-telling device but also as a resource hub to boost activism. It is a place that remembers and reminds – it is a powerful deterrent to the world that says “No More Bhopal”.
They are looking at museums as a strategic story-telling device but also as a resource hub to boost activism.
7. Visitors often return reliving that fateful night as the museum design presents them a vivid interpretation of the incident. Who came up with the idea of a unique black room design and inducing telephonic narration of the tragic incident?
Oral histories were always going to play a central role because “voice” is a very important subject for me in my work in museums. Whose voice? What stories get told and what stories get left out? We had initially thought we would have headphones with push-button audios. But our designer Vivek Seth came up with the telephone idea – it was brilliant. It was Vivek’s idea to have the walls painted black. I was always toying with a dark-blue color for a very long time. But when Vivek said he wanted the color of the suffocating, poisonous night — we all jumped at the idea.
8. Is there any particular reason behind choosing a location close to Union Carbide factory for the museum?
Of course, it had to be close to the factory. It would be part of a trail of storytelling – the factory, the immediate neighbourhood of survivors, the hospital, clinic, school run by the survivors and activists and the museum.
9. The trust doesn’t accept funds from the government and co-operate companies. Where do you source funds from?
We received funds privately through small donations. Some money came from anti-pesticide groups as well.
It’s a new vocabulary of dissent that has entered our rarefied, safe museums.
10. As a curator for the museum, how has your experience been so far?
It was team work. As a museologist, it has been very satisfying for me because there are too many triumphalist, celebratory history museums in India. Very few about injustice and difficult questions. The museum breaks the dominant rhetorical codes in the Indian curatorial landscape. It’s a new vocabulary of dissent that has entered our rarefied, safe museums.
The message is fierce – Its high time for the government to take necessary steps to provide relief to the survivors whose life continues to remain a testimony of that fateful night.
Photo Credit: accessibilityinmusuem.wordpress.com