The Museum complex seen in the early 1900s by Willie Burke.
The most interesting road in Egmore is undoubtedly Pantheon Road, taking its name from what was called The Pantheon – or ‘Public Assembly Rooms’. The Pantheon traces its history back to August 1778 when the Governor granted 43 acres for an estate to a civil servant who, subsequently in 1793, assigned the grounds to a committee of 24 which regulated the public amusements in the city at the time. In 1821, the Committee sold the main house and central garden space to E.S. Moorat, the Armenian merchant who, in turn, sold it back to Government in 1830. Government first used the buildings and the grounds as the Collector’s ‘Cutcherry’, then for the ‘Central Museum’, many additions to the original building being constructed between 1864 and 1890. The core of the old museum building includes the only surviving remnants of The Pantheon, identified from the broad steps leading into it when viewed from the north.
Amongst the additions is one with stained glass windows, ornate woodwork and elaborate stucco decorations, the Connemara Public Library, formally opened in 1896 and named after its progenitor. The building is yet another Namberumal Chetty triumph. But the interior flourishes, so reminiscent of those of Bank of Madras (SBI), are Henry Irwin’s. Its magnificent reading room with a rich wooden ceiling between two curved rows of stained glass, supported by ornate pillars and arches embellished with sculpted acanthus leaves, its teakwood furniture of another age, its marbled floor and its decorative windows all contribute to making it a thing of beauty that has been restored in 2004-7, but to which, unfortunately, access is not permitted. The building now houses the Old Collection (pre-1930), which is for reference only – books brought out to the reader on request.
Both the Museum and the Library benefited greatly from the effects of the Madras Literary Society, the Oriental Manuscripts Library and the Records Office. The Museum itself is one of the finest in the country. It houses a wealth of variety as well as a 19th Century theatre, delightfully Olde English both inside and out, with the ‘pit’ meant for those who can afford more and seating for the rest of the audience in tiered seats arranged in a semi-circle around the pit. Restoration to mark the 150th anniversary of the Museum introduced airconditioning in the place of 25 fans hanging from the high ceiling, but the restorers have succeeded in retaining the ambience of the past.
The Museum’s wealth had its genesis in a gift of its fine collection of 1,100 geological specimens by the Madras Literary Society to the Government in 1851. The Museum, the first Government-sponsored one in the country, opened the same year on the first floor of the College of Fort St George, adjacent to the Literary Society in Nungambakkam, with an exhibit of nearly 20,000 freely gifted specimens ranging from rocks to books. These gifts were in response to a public invitation that did not have a cut-off date. When the mounting collection of geological specimens threatened the stability of this first floor, the Museum’s first Officer-in-Charge, Surgeon Edward Balfour, at the time President of the Literary Society and serving the Museum in an honorary capacity, advocated moving to a new building. The move was made in 1854 to The Pantheon. A library and a reading room were provided for the public in 1859. And in 1864 an upper storey was added to The Pantheon in sympathetic style, giving the Museum more elbow room. The library got a new block in the northwest corner of The Pantheon in 1876, with a lecture hall provided for. That building is now, after restoration, the Centenary Exhibition Hall of the Museum. By 1896 there had been built new buildings for the Museum (where the anthropological and arms galleries now are), the Connemara Library and the Museum Theatre.
Balfour also established the first zoo in Madras in 1855 in the Museum grounds and a year later it had over 300 animals, birds and reptiles. This zoo was made
a separate institution and shifted to People’s Park in 1863 where it remained, not growing very much, till its move to Vandalur.