Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) – formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India - is one of the premier cultural institutions in India. The hundred-year-old autonomous institution came into existence in 1909 by an Act of the Bombay Presidency. It was an outcome of a strong desire of prominent citizens of Bombay (now Mumbai) who understood the cultural requirements of 20th century Bombay (Mumbai) and suggested to the Government (Bombay Presidency) the establishment of a public museum with an objective that the set-up should be educational and not a mere show museum.
The Scottish architect George Wittet designed the historic building in 1914. The Museum is one the finest examples of Indo Saracenic style of architecture of the early 20th century which owes its genesis to the big central dome and two smaller domes on either side and is complemented by a beautifully laid garden on one of the largest plots of land called the “Crescent Site”- because of its shape - in the cultural district of South Mumbai, near the Gateway of India. Today, the Museum is a Grade I Heritage building and part of the Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble in Mumbai which is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Over the past century, the Museum’s wide-ranging encyclopaedic collections have grown to about 70,000 objects, narrating the human story, especially of the Indian subcontinent, from pre-historic times to the present. CSMVS is a cultural, and social space and a meeting place for communities to engage in dialogue and exchange of ideas.
The museum interior and the key gallery below the central dome - Photo credits _ Aman Nahar
The Director General of the Museum Mr. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as the head of a cultural institution, had a vision for its future - to ensure its growth and to retain its relevance in the society. The year 2022 marked the centenary of the museum, and to befittingly commemorate the centenary, the CSMVS, in the year 2016, undertook an up-gradation of as-built drawings, a detailed fabric status report and a special study on the health of its concrete dome. Based on the fabric status report CSMVS envisaged a grandiose plan of Comprehensive Exterior and Interior restoration of the Museum Building involving major structural repairs and refurbishment which commenced in 2019 with generous financial support from the TCS Foundation.
The CSMVS Museum is perhaps the only national-level museum in the country that does not receive any government funding for its functioning. Yet, the Museum has been able to not only manage its governance and other affairs but has also become highly successful with its wide-ranging exhibition, activities, research and publication etc. which is recognised globally.
Executing a comprehensive repair and restoration project for a cultural institute like CSMVS, without any government assistance, was a complex and time-consuming process as it had to undertake the project without closing the Museum to the public. Keeping this in mind, the Museum had developed a detailed plan: To minimise disruption to visitors, staff and exhibits; To identify potential hazards and safety risks associated with the repair and refurbishment work; To relocate galleries and iconic objects, and offer additional activities and programmes to minimise disruption to visitors; To involve outside experts with a specialization such as Structural, architectural conservation, MEP, Lighting, Skilled Contractors and Periodic monitoring and review to keep the project on track and to achieve an exacting standard of restoration, which the century-old beautifully designed building merited.
In the past, the museum has also been carrying out repairs and refurbishment projects that focus on the Museum building. However, those efforts had been more localized. The one undertaken now as part of this Conservation-Restoration project was a grand and comprehensive one involving major structural repairs and refurbishment. It was ensured that the museum, as a cultural institute of the city, had to set a high conservation standard for the city.
The CSMVS Museum building with its dome under scaffolding - photograph credits: Vikas Dilawari
On-site work started in October 2019, but within six months of the commencement of the restoration work, there was an onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The subsequent lockdown restrictions had a significant impact affecting millions of people and causing loss of life and livelihood, leading to a widespread disruption to daily life worldwide and so also to CSMVS and its building restoration project. However, after the initial pandemic period, the Museum changed its strategy and decided to take advantage of the pandemic period, during which the Museum was closed to the public, to carry out restoration work. Focus was shifted to interior repairs and refurbishment of its central dome and several exhibition galleries to take advantage of the closure of the Museum to visitors. The entire collection on display was shifted to safe and secure storage areas. A team of twelve trained and experienced guards was formed to take care of the security supervision of restoration work. In the wake of the COVID disruption in transport and day-to-day living, the museum created a makeshift arrangement. It provided the security team with on-site accommodation, including arrangements for their meals, for almost two months. A temporary shed was constructed over the terraces to mitigate the risk of rainwater entering the Museum building, where waterproofing work was in progress.
Technically, a very detailed scientific study of the dome was undertaken, and one of the most elaborate scaffolds was constructed going up to a height of 110’feet in the key gallery and one externally covering the dome for a very long duration, which otherwise, during a normal working of the museum, would have been impossible. The structural study of the dome revealed that the repairs done in the 1970s by guniting have prolonged the life of the dome. Its waterproofing done with China mosaic was found to be efficient and was repaired locally as required after monitoring it for two years.
The subsequent major intervention was structural i.e., to replace the century-old slabs whose reinforcement had corroded due to long exposure to moisture and humidity, resulting in weakening the strength of the concrete. Third was to attend to waterproofing treatment where the slab condition was fair and do the conventional waterproofing with required strengthening. Fourth was redoing the loose plaster in lime surkhi mortar wherever required and essential. Fifth was the facades and parapet top, whose repointing was done in the earlier repairs as these had opened. This was followed by refurbishing the spaces internally by upgrading the services i.e., electricals and new state of art lights, which were in conformity with the character of the heritage building. With the help of an appropriate colour scheme and new artificial state-of-the-art lights, the interiors were done to have a holistic look rather than each gallery standing out separately. This not only enhanced its historic character, but it brought a significant transformation to the building. Post the restoration of the building, the gallery designers took advantage of the restoration to redesign the exhibition space.
Overall, the key success of working on museum repairs and restoration projects during the pandemic was the team’s ability to complete the project in time and efficiently. With fewer visitors and reduced operations, museums had more flexibility to schedule and carry out restoration work without disrupting the visitor experience. It was a risk, but it did prove that it was all worth it. There was also a new learning for all of us, the pandemic highlighted the need for greater preparedness to prevent and respond to future pandemics.
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