Despite budget cuts and financial difficulties, museums across the world have done well to attract more visitors in the year that has just ended, but what lies ahead? The International Council of Museums, an organisation of museums and museum professionals from 137 countries, has cautioned that the current year would be critical, with no sign of improvement in the global economic situation. More than ever, museums have to urgently innovate ways of remaining relevant to society. This advice and urging, for an entirely different set of reasons, applies unequivocally to India's museums, particularly the government-administered ones. Of the nearly 1,000 museums in the country, over 90 per cent are state-run. The visitor experience they offer is far from enriching and museum practices they adopt are way below global standards. What is of serious concern is the pathetic state of the National Museum, the premier institution in the country. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, which looked at its functioning last year, found about a quarter of the galleries closed for more than three years, signage and labels of artefacts poorly designed, hardly 7.5 per cent of its two lakh collections exhibited, and the art acquisition committee defunct for the past 16 years.
Complacency has cost Indian museums the funds they badly need. For example, even the measly Rs. 72.36 crore the Central government allotted in 2009-10, was not fully utilised. This led the parliamentary committee to conclude that “allocation to the museums is enough.” So where, then, does the solution lie? The first step towards a turnaround is to improve the ‘quality, range and relevance' of the exhibits. Simultaneously, programmes to involve and engage people have to be put in place. The recommendations by the B.N. Goswamy Committee (2010) on improving museum infrastructure and administration ought to be implemented without delay. Museums across the world are looking at imaginative ways such as virtual displays to make their collections ‘more publicly available' and ‘show a wider volume of material'. Indian museums will do well to adopt these innovations. The Ministry of Culture has tied up with the British Museum for a modest training programme. This is commendable, but given the urgency, capacity-building should be radically stepped up and India's flagship museums placed in the hands of trained professionals selected from among the best in the world rather than babus and bureaucrats.