Avik Chattopadhyay: Why we need ‘museums’ for brands to tell their stories

15 Oct,2020

By Avik Chattopadhyay


We Indians simply love our history. And our legacy. So much so, that we do not mind twisting it, rewriting it, misappropriating it, defacing it, and just plain ignoring it. We love it so very much that we do not respect it, preserve it, accept it or cherish it. Visit any old Indian monument and you get first-hand demonstration of the same through people painstakingly carving the names of their loved ones on 17th century monuments, visibly stirred into leaving their marks on the walls of time.


Defacement of the Agra Fort – picture sourced from the internet.


The same malaise runs deep in most Indian brands. Somehow, they are very poor in preserving their history, painstakingly chronicling it and sharing it with their internal and external stakeholders. Go into the “About us” sub-links of most corporate websites and you will see a superficial attempt at talking about their ‘glorious and successful past’. They think that creating a ‘history timechart’ is a brilliant attempt at preserving and living their legacy. Sadly, this applies to some of the biggest and boldest of Indian brands.


Hence, when one comes up with a piece of work that genuinely attempts at living and loving their legacy, it is such a fresh whiff of old perfume! On October 2, Mahindra released a book called “Timeless Mahindra”, a chronicle of the Mahindra Jeep in India right from assembling the CJ3 Willys Jeep in 1954 to launching the new Thar in 2020! Crafted by the renowned automobile journalist and historian Adil Jal Darukhanawala, it obviously took months and months of unearthing the past, meeting hundreds of people, jogging memories of many and diligently putting it all together in words and pictures. This is an example of genuinely cherishing a brand whose progress is so closely entwined with that of the country. While the book costs beyond the reach of most of us, I am hopeful that Mahindra will gradually release a digitised version for all enthusiasts to access and enjoy. Eventually, Mahindra should go ahead and build a “Timeless Mahindra” virtual roadshow, converting the book into a digital 3D spectacle.


Automobile brands carry some of the most interesting legacies. The stories of engineers, designers, business leaders along with the physical products make a heady combination. India has had its fair share of the same. Remember that cars were imported into our country from the 1890s, soon after the modern motor car was developed by Karl Benz! Yet, not one of the Indian automobile brands either has a proper chronicle of its history nor has a museum that proudly displays all it has done over the years!


In fact, some seem quite embarrassed by their history. Maruti Suzuki is an example. For some reason, this shining star of India wishes to hide any traces back to Sanjay Gandhi though there is enough information on the same all over. There is no mention of its history pre-1983 on the official website. There is no such mention anywhere in the Gurugram plant. In fact, all things to do with that phase of the brand’s life have been systematically removed. All photographs of the man were removed. The Tool Room of the Gurugram plant which was his erstwhile office and still had furniture from his days, was demolished in 2002 to make way for a new parking lot. The last few units of the first cars built were also ‘ordered’ to be destroyed before the 20th anniversary of the brand in 2003. In fact, the company considers its birth in 1983 and not 1971 when Maruti Motors Limited was incorporated!


Sanjay Gandhi with the first batch of ‘Marutis’…sometime in 1974-75.


December 14, 1983 – Indira Gandhi with the first Maruti 800; notice the photo of Sanjay Gandhi on the wall!


This is in sharp contrast with Volkswagen, the brand that inspired the conception of Maruti as the people’s car for India. There is no attempt to hide the fact that Adolf Hitler had conceived the German people’s car project and instructed Ferdinand Porsche to work on it. At the AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg there are mentions of the same. Also, there is a fitting tribute to Major Ivan Hirst, the British Army officer who is credited with ‘preserving’ the Volkswagen plant during the Second World War and resuming activities as soon as the war ended. At the Zeithaus in the Autostadt in Wolfsburg there was a statue of Major Hirst when I first visited the place in 2003! Running away from history is as disrespectful as distorting it.


Volkswagen has two museums in Wolfsburg, one stand-alone and the other as part of the Autostadt complex. Maruti does not even have one!


Ferdinand Porsche explaining his plans to Hitler – source Fast Company


Tribute to Major Ivan Hirst


Tata Motors does not have one. Neither does Mahindra. Nor Bajaj Auto. Or for that matter Ashok Leyland or Hero MotoCorp!


As an industry India does not have an automobile museum! We could have built one that houses vehicles, memorabilia, documents and events right from the late 1890s / early 1900s. It could have been such a testimony to the role the brands and the industry has played in the nation’s development and progress. It could have been such an inspiration for generations, taking pride in the brands that have done us proud for decades. It is time the entire industry got together to build one, physically as well as virtually.


And the same applies to many other industries and houses of Indian brands. I would love to visit a “Tata” museum…one that traces the entire history right from the opium trade in 1858-59 to the present day and every milestone that is crossed in the days to come. Similarly, for Parle. And Kirloskar. And Birla. And Infosys. And MRF. Every brand has a duty to share its entire story with its stakeholders, right from employees to consumers.


In fact, museum is a wrong word to use for such an initiative. This is actually a brand experience zone, both in physical and virtual forms. Such zones can never be static in what they display and share as what happened just yesterday could be important enough to preserve and show tomorrow.



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