The gigantic marble statue of Lord Cornwallis welcomes visitors at the Fort Museum housed on the Fort. St. George premises. The mild sea breeze from across the road, the spic and span interiors and rare artefacts make it an apt place for those interested in taking time off to take a peek into the past. However, except the curator and a few employees, there was no one to be seen at this period museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
As Chennai gears up to celebrate ‘Madras Day', the city's museums which collect, preserve, archive and display elements of our past seem to have a story to tell. Not one that talks of past glory, but one that points to decreasing interest levels. The fascinating collection displayed at the museums could do with more attention, observe experts.
According to P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, Fort Museum, ASI (Chennai Circle), around 200 persons come on an average day. These visitors are largely those who come as part of the TTDC tour of the city, heritage walks, and students coming on field trips, or foreigners. It is rare to see visitors come to simply know more about the city's past, he says.
The story of the Madras High Court museum is not too different. With a replica of the machine used for embossing the seal on all orders, the scarlet robe, the mace, Judges' declaration book and order of copy right cases the collection seems quite interesting. The museum, which was set up with the aim of showcasing the history of legal services to the fraternity, to start with, and then the public, hardly attracts visitors now.
The Egmore Museum, which has 48 galleries and 11 sections, seems better off in terms of the number of visitors, but the regular visitors are dwindling. T.S. Sridhar, Principal Secretary/Commissioner, Department of Museums, says that in the West people are drawn naturally but here it is only the scholarly audience. “While the scholarly audience has increased in the Government Museum, Egmore, the number of regular visitors has decreased,” he says.
The renovated Amaravati gallery is also set to reopen next month. The Children's Gallery of the Government Museum, which is the second most visited place after the Chemical Conservation Lab, would soon have more interactive equipments whereby children can work on them. Involving interested persons in a greater way and students, in particular, might help, some believe. “The Government has now said that heritage clubs will be set up in school. Once that takes off, we will tie up with these clubs and have special programmes for children,” Mr. Sriraman says.
Emphasising the need to involve students, he adds that the museum is considering designing programmes that would have children from small villages around Chennai come over to have a feel of our past and experts going to the villages to talk to the children about their local heritage.
According to V. Jeyaraj, former curator and author of ‘Directory of Museums in Tamil Nadu', there are over 25 museums in Chennai. These include those run inside educational institutions and started as memorials such as Anna Memorial, and Vivekanandar Illam. Museums run by colleges are mostly unused as there is no trained curator. “Also, maintenance is a big task for any museum,” says Mr. Jeyaraj, who is now director of Hepzibah Institute of Heritage Conservation.
The rich collection updated periodically, placement of objects, the description going with it and other particulars in the room, including natural flow of lighting and interiors, contribute towards inviting visitors, say experts. The task to pull crowd doesn't rest by increasing the number of objects or artefacts but bringing regular communication between people and scholars with the museum, says Mr. Sridhar. Some of the new initiatives taken by the museum are: regular update of info on upcoming events on the website and collaborating with colleges for various programmes.
With the Chennai Corporation, too, planning a museum in the Ripon Building complex to commemorate its 320 years, there seems to be a promise of more opportunities to turn back, and look at our past.
Keywords: Chennai museums